Jodie Prenger Interview

Ever fallen so in love with a foreign country that you've been tempted to stay forever? In Willy Russell's much-loved story, Shirley Valentine, a middle-aged housewife swaps her humdrum life in Liverpool for paradise on the sunny shores of Greece after a friend unexpectedly invites her out on holiday.

The 1989 film version starring Pauline Collins has firmly established a place in the nation's hearts, but slightly less well known and widely seen is the original stage version that inspired it. Unusually for Russell, the stage show takes the form of a long monologue, where a solo performer recounts Shirley's entire journey in character. Thirty years after the show made its stage debut, I'd Do Anything star Jodie Prenger brings it back to life at Birmingham's New Alexandra Theatre this month.

“As a character, I'd put Shirley Valentine right up there with icons,” says Prenger. “When Willy Russell created her, I think she became the heart of every woman around the UK, so it's an absolute joy to play a role like this. And also she's so brave - I think it's extraordinary to have the strength to leave everything she knows behind. It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but she really does 'discover herself'. I think it's quite an endearing quality for someone to question what their life has been and what they've done with it, and she really does that.”

Like many, Prenger had her first encounter with Shirley through the film adaptation. Though the character and story are much the same in either medium, the way it's told makes a huge difference, especially for the actor leading the production.

“I've never seen it on stage before, which I think is a good thing, but of course I've seen the film, and I'm always quite shocked when people say they haven't. On stage, the vision and the story and the premise is all taken up by one person, so you have to really be there in the moment. You can't just sit on a chair and tell the story - you have to make sure the audience can see all these scenes and the parts of Shirley's journey playing out.”

Luckily, Prenger has plenty of experience to draw on here, having previously appeared in Tell Me On A Sunday, which showed at the New Alex in April 2016. But in this particular case, she says, it's the nature of the character and the scale of her journey of self-discovery that allows the show to easily fill the space in larger venues, despite its one-woman cast.

“I think it goes back to Shirley Valentine being this big, iconic role. She's got a huge, epic story to tell and goes on a real adventure, and that makes you want to listen to her. She's a great explorer who gets to live out her dream. She says herself that she's a mother, she's a wife, she's Shirley Valentine, and the way that she says it makes you feel like Shirley Valentine could be Super Woman.”

Of course, although she takes the limelight up on stage, Prenger isn't going to be entirely unsupported. There's also plenty of help to be had from the crew and creative team, including designer Amy Yardley.
“I don't want to give too much away but the set really is extraordinary. It's got a kind of nostalgic quality, especially when she ventures out to Greece - it's really beautiful and picturesque.”

Creator Willy Russell (Blood Brothers, Educating Rita) also remains a hands-on member of the team, and director Glen Walford has the benefit of just as much experience with the show as does the writer, having both commissioned and directed the original stage production.

“It was originally written as a play. Glen Walford commissioned Willy to write a musical, and he turned up with this one-woman play which has become really embedded in the history of theatre - so no pressure for me! Willy's been really involved in this production, but then the show is his baby. And it's the same with Glen. They're both very proud of it, and I'm very proud to get to hold it - I feel like I'm holding it with my mittens on, protecting it. I think it's so admirable when the people who’ve created these shows stay part of them for so long, and I think that's what keeps them special and keeps the strength in them year after year.”

Decades after the story was written, attitudes to marriage, relationships and women generally have changed a great deal, and Shirley's pre-holiday life spent talking to the walls and cooking egg and chips for an unappreciative husband are probably far less typical today than they once were. Nevertheless, thinks Prenger, she's still as easy to identify with as ever.

“The thing is, when you watch it, she never actually hates Joe. I think they do still love each other, and that's why they've stayed together for so long, even if they don't always say it. They've just started drifting apart, haven't they? I think we've all experienced relationships like that - where someone does things that get on your bloody nerves and sometimes they drive you mad, but deep down you love 'em and you just get on with it. You see echoes of that throughout history - it's just something that goes on and on.”

And it's not just relationships either; there are plenty of other ways of getting stuck in a rut. Anyone who's ever found themselves in any sort of dead-end situation, whether in love or simply in an unsatisfying job, will be able to understand Shirley's gnawing frustrations and desire for an escape. Not wanting to return from a favourite holiday is probably also something that most of us can identify with.

“I think we've also all had jobs where we go in nine-to-five and we'd all much rather be sat on the beach drinking wine by the sea. I remember when we went to the Maldives - we were on a private island, which was lovely, and it was definitely hard to drag me back then. So I think there's a bit of Shirley Valentine in every single person out there. Or at least I hope there is, because she's just glorious, she really is.”

As well as starring in Tell Me On A Sunday, Spamalot and Calamity Jane at the New Alex, Prenger also recently appeared as Fairy Bow Bells in Birmingham Hippodrome's Christmas panto, Dick Whittington. And she's looking forward to returning to the city. Coming back to a familiar place with a few friendly faces to call on helps break up the loneliness of touring solo.

“I always love going to Birmingham - the shopping's great and it's got a real kind of buzz about it, which is always nice, especially when you're going somewhere on your own. I've done quite a lot of shows in the city, and it was lovely to hear the reaction about Shirley Valentine while I was doing the panto at the Hippodrome over Christmas. And it'll be nice to meet up with some people I know there because I do sometimes get lonely doing a one-woman show, so I'm more than grateful to anyone who pops over for a chat.” 

Shirley Valentine shows at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Mon 6 - Sat 11 March; Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tues 6 - Sat 10 June; Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, Mon 10 - Sat 15 July