14 April 2010
Shirley Valentine, the Bafta-nominated comedy by much-loved dramatist Willy Russell, hasn't been seen on the London stage since the eighties, but this season a revival at The Chocolate Factory on Southwark Street sees comedian and actress Meera Syal resurrecting the role, writes Emma Ailes...
Best known for her television roles in 'Goodness Gracious Me' and 'The Kumars at Number 42', Meera Syal will be bringing to life the story of Shirley Valentine: a middle-aged, working-class woman from Liverpool.
The one-character play follows Shirley, who's stuck in a rut and talking to the wall whilst preparing her husband's egg and chips. When her best friend wins an all-expenses-paid vacation for two to Greece, Shirley starts to see the world rather differently.
Meera herself appears to be a very calm and laid back sort of woman, but admits that rehearsing for the part of Shirley Valentine has been taking its toll. "I've been turning into a mad person," she says, "I keep finding I'm talking to myself. I was driving along in the car the other day, and I pulled up at some traffic lights. As I looked across, I saw that the people in the car next to me were staring at me…and then I realised it was because I was talking to myself again."
The part of Shirley requires Meera, who is Wolverhampton born and bred, to maintain a Liverpudlian accent for several hours, as well as single-handedly acting all the different characters in the play. "It's exhausting," she says, "but luckily I'm not finding the accent not too difficult.
I was living in Manchester for a few years, but my best friend is from Liverpool, so the accent has come fairly easily - though she may be a little surprised that my Shirley Valentine sounds exactly like her!" Although playing Shirley had not been a particular ambition of Meera's, after reading the part, she says she fell head over heels for it. "Shirley Valentine was something that came up, but when I read the play I was just astonished at how much it spoke to me.
I went to meet Willy Russell and the crew to audition, and I was lucky enough to get the part." With her background as a comic actress and writer famous for drawing on Asian culture, the question arose about whether Meera's version of Shirley would acknowledge her heritage.
"It is a fact that I'm an Asian woman playing the role," she explains, "and of course people will see that and think about it. But we didn't need to change anything, the script is strong the way it is. "We discussed it for a long time, and you could definitely do a full adaptation, but this time around we were conscious of not wanting to do it cosmetically.
"Shirley has been taken on by five or six women since it was written. I saw the film many years ago, but I've tried to avoid it so that I can bring my own interpretation to the part."
Outside of rehearsals, Meera adds that she is enjoying the sights of Southwark: "I love being in Southwark and getting to know it, because it's not an area I know too well. Every time I walk past the Cathedral, I look up and think how old it is and how much history there is in the area. "I can remember being at school in the Midlands and studying the Canterbury Tales, and imagining this place, where Chaucer's pilgrims set off from.
And Borough Market is fabulous, although I end up being such a glutton!" And from housewives to Daleks, Meera is soon to be appearing in Dr Who, but insists that all she can say about it is that "there will be monsters…". Until then, she will be focussing on making sure that Willy Russell's classic, which is nearly thirty-years-old, appears as fresh and relevant to audiences as ever.
"It's still set in the 80's, with all the references to the EEC and such, but it's a timeless play. I guarantee that there is not one woman anywhere who won't watch this and think that's me. It's about every women who gets to their forties, looks at their lives and thinks, 'Is this it?' "But it's not just male-bashing," she insists. "The play is about all people who don't fulfil their potential. It's such a beautiful, funny and moving play.
I love it." 'Shirley Valentine' will run in repertoire with 'Educating Rita' as part of the Willy Russell Season at The Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street, from March 26 to May 8. Box Office 0207 907 7060.
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