Vienna’s English Theatre puts on a charming and wistful comedy, Shirley Valentine

There must be something about actors talking to inanimate objects that can make an audience laugh (remember Clint Eastwood berating an empty chair during the 2012 Republican National Convention?). In British playwright Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, the heroine talks to a rock. Unfortunately, it’s a Greek rock, so it can’t understand her.

To be clear, every bit of Shirley Valentine is meant to entertain. Much like an Eastwoodian maverick, Russell ventured into the lawless terrain of the one-woman show, a new genre in 1986, when he created his two-hour monologue that has become a staple of the West End and marked Russell’s debut on Broadway.

It was easy to see why on the second night of its current run at Vienna’s English Theatre. The audience of native and non-native speakers was in stitches, clearly having a wonderful time.

Second life

The comedy tells the story of Shirley Bradshaw (formally Valentine), a middle-aged Liverpudlian housewife, who faces a midlife crisis when her best friend invites her on a getaway to Greece.

Shirley (a formidable Cally Lawrence), and her husband, Joe, are empty nesters, her role of nurturing mother no longer needed. Serving her family as a one-stop shop for all things domestic, she can no longer remember why she fell in love with Joe in the first place. After 20 plus years of marriage, Shirley begrudges the dreary routines, drunken arguments and sexual abstinence. Above all, Shirley regrets no longer daring to dream.

Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, looks like the perfect place to find a new sense of purpose, even if it means a country where they eat squid! Once at the beach, it is not so much a Promethean zest for knowledge that spurs Shirley on but a raw desire to feel alive.

Like its working-class heroine, the plot of Shirley Valentine may seem simple. But Russell took a risk in writing this play. The entire comedy hinges on the audience’s capacity to relate to the feeling of squandered opportunity. Of course, few people can say they have always made the most of every chance.

Lightening our remorse, Russell’s humor is primarily situational, and Lawrence shines brightest during impersonations of her friends and family. Director Adrienne Ferguson decidedly kept this play in the ‘80s: Shirley references the Concorde, phone boxes and André Previn. She even wears shoulder pads. But all of these somewhat nostalgic details don’t really matter because in the end, Shirley’s plight is as relevant today as it was in the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Holiday in three acts

Eventually, Shirley indulges in a fling with the owner of a local tavern, and when Joe pleads for her return to England, she rejects him. The play ends with Joe en route to Greece, while Shirley promises the audience she will never go back.

Thus, Russell’s comedy seems to suggest that the next time we nd ourselves lonely, desperate or lost, we should try talking to our lawnmower or washing machine. Or even a rock. We could get a good laugh out of it.

At Vienna’s English Theatre, Ferguson and Lawrence succeed in making a monodrama from the ‘80s a relevant, hip and entertaining theater experience. It is Russell’s wry humor that nudges us and urges us to reevaluate our lives. It also saves Shirley Valentine.

Through Oct 21, 19:30, Vienna’s English Theatre, 8., Josefsgasse 12, englishtheatre.at