Shirley Valentine, Blue Bridge Theatre, a review

I’m an un-abashed Nicola Cavendish and Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre fan with a penchant for plucky characters of the sort portrayed in the award-winning Willy Russell play Shirley Valentine.  I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing Cavendish in her initial Victoria performance of Shirley Valentine at the Belfry Theatre in 1991, and interviewed her recently about her evolution in the role (the Victoria run culminates a current Canadian tour that will see Cavendish reach 600 appearances as Shirley).  Audiences from coast to coast have anticipated this show.

To say that I was just as eager is not an understatement.

Nicola Cavendish as Shirley Valentine. Photo: Barbara Zimonick 

Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine) is a middle-aged, Liverpool housewife who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, taken advantage of by her children and ignored by pretty much everyone.

When her best friend wins a trip for two to Greece, she jumps at the chance to escape. With wit and a colourful vocabulary, Shirley commits subtle anarchy and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime. This heart-warming and inspiring comedy proves it’s never too late to live the life of your dreams.

As in fine dining, many elements are necessary to create a fine theatre-going experience. They range from the more mundane (will the theatre be too hot, is my seat comfortable, are other patrons quiet during the show) to questions of the play (are the characters believable, do I understand the language and the context) and finally the production (set design, lighting, direction and the performance of the actors).

Now in their fourth season, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has consistently delivered high quality shows with an attention to detail that is a hallmark of Producing Artistic Director Brian Richmond.  The McPherson Theatre shines as a venue, providing an intimate experience for a larger house (800 seats).  Ms Cavendish’s current tour of  Shirley Valentine has played to sold out houses and glowing reviews from coast to coast.

Expectations were very high.

Joyfully exuberant, ribald, wicked and eventually wise, Cavendish mines every emotion as she moves from downtrodden middle-aged housewife, wife and mother, to liberation and re-discovery, and finishes with a glimmer of hope for new possibilities in old situations.

Shirley’s entire world has been reduced initially to the four walls of her kitchen – a set created specifically for this tour by designer Anne Séguin-Poirier.  Shirley Valentine can just as easily be played solo without an elaborate and intricately crafted work of art (Ms Cavendish often performs this version as a fundraiser for organizations she has a close association with) but, for me, and many other audience members, there is a certain magic and delight in watching the “chips” in the fryer and the rain beating against the window.

The careful ballet and co-ordination required to deliver a meal to the table whilst holding forth on everything from female orgasm (or the lack thereof), to ungrateful children, doltish husbands, painful experiences at school and unrealized dreams, is breath taking to watch. “Will the chips burn?  What if dinner isn’t ready in time for Joe?”

The not-so-simple device of using a working kitchen allows audience members to become co-conspirators, rooting for Shirley as she carefully plots her escape from drudgery.

Cavendish is a very skilled actor, completely at home in the role of Shirley Valentine, and constantly striving to perfect her portrayal. She handily navigates the multiple characters in Shirley’s world, and imbues them with tics, gestures, accents and motivations that separate them from the main character.  It’s easy for the audience to follow the transitions.

Within minutes, we’re laughing at the foibles of Millandra, Joe, Brian, and Jane; we know them well, for they inhabit our world too.

Perhaps that’s the secret to the success of this now decades old piece, (Willy Russell was commissioned in 1986 to write Shirley Valentine for the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool); we all struggle to find meaning in the smallness of our lives, in the everyday sameness that can overwhelm us if we let it. Our great challenge and unique adventure is to find happiness in these circumstances.

Sometimes it requires a bit of a jump start though.  Shirley realizes her dream of “Just for once drinking a glass of wine in the country where the grapes are grown” and no longer needs to ask “What am I to do with all this unused life”.

This transformation is underscored in Act Two by a majestically rendered Greek coastline, with costume changes to match. Cavendish as Shirley relaxes, breathes and settles in to a much less manic mood, circling back on her life to re-connect with the girl she once was.

During the journeys, metaphorical and physical, and for over two hours, Nicola Cavendish holds us captivated.  We come away as best friends, proud to know “Shirley Valentine”.

If theatre were fine dining, Cavendish’s portrayal of Shirley Valentine would be Chateaubriand in a four star Parisian restaurant.

Thank you Blue Bridge Theatre for bringing this delight toVictoria.

Don’t delay – tickets will sell fast, and I expect houses to sell-out.

Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell with Nicola Cavendish, directed by Roy Surette

Original Set Design: Anne Séguin-Poirier

Lighting: Harry Frehner

Costumes: Phillip Clarkson

MacPherson Playhouse, May 15 – 19, 8PM + May 19-20, 2PM. 

Single Tickets:  adult ($60.25), senior/student ($55.00).


McPherson Box Office, Centennial Square, Victoria

PHONE: 250 386 6121



Disclaimer:  I was offered a complimentary ticket to attend the preview of Shirley Valentine as media for the purpose of writing a review.  As always, I retain editorial control over all the content published on this blog.

I am a season subscriber to Blue Bridge Theatre, and a past board member.

About @lacouvee

Community Builder. Catalyst. Speaker. Writer. Arts Advocate.

Passionate about bridging online and offline communities to effect positive change.

I truly believe that one person can make a difference and that we all have our own lives to live, creatively, while respecting the unique nature of others.


  1. […] Blue Bridge is not only a producer of work. Over the past two seasons, they have begun to present work during their off-season (Buddy Holly fall 2011) and pre-season (this year’s excellent Shirley Valentine). […]

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