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One woman’s journey of discovery on Lyric stage

CHANGE: Tara Lynne O’Neill as Shirley Valentine CHANGE: Tara Lynne O’Neill as Shirley Valentine
By Ciara Quinn

HOUSE lights dim, stage lights up and our scene is set. Gingham tablecloth, matching curtains, egg and chips on the hob and Tara Lynne O’Neill’s Shirley Valentine invites us into her kitchen.
Willy Russell’s iconic play, later a film, has been relocated from 1980s Liverpool to Belfast in this winning new production by Patrick J O’Reilly – the artistic director of Tinderbox Theatre Company.
Shirley keeps telling us that she is “42 years old”, which doesn’t seem that old at all but the character, at this stage in her life, is already done. She and her husband Joe have grown apart, both wounded by their marriage. Shirley is there to peel the spuds, put dinner on the table and tend to the grown-up children, Millandra and Brian, as if they are still toddlers. Shirley talks to the wall as there is no-one else to talk to.
Her friend Jane has bought her a ticket for two weeks in Greece and the first act is the will she/won’t she build-up to getting there.
Shirley tells us how she wanted to be a “courier or air hostess” but was discouraged by less-than-patient teachers at school – “Only the clever ones get to do that.”
Shirley Valentine has “disappeared,” we are told, worn down by routine and repetition and now “frightened of life beyond the walls.”
By the time the interval came the audience was rooting for Shirley as she gets ready for her two weeks in Corfu.
In Act Two, gone is the mousy dress, apron and sensible shoes of the first half and in its place is a striking Shirley: colourful bathing suit, tanned skin, feet encased in bright pink shoes. We learn that Shirley’s friend Jane abandoned her for four days ”to shack up with a man she met on the plane. “I was alone but it was lovely” – Shirley took her table down to the beach most nights to watch the sunset and sip her wine.
Shirley Valentine is a timeless story – a woman stuck within four walls who needs to break out and break free. Tara Lynne triumphantly portrays a woman who was a prisoner in her own kitchen but learns that there is “life beyond the walls” and drags us along with her, cheering in her wake. As the lights dim, she’s on the beach and waiting for Joe – who she believes probably won’t recognise her – to come and talk at the crossroads they have found themselves at.
In a poignant touch, there was a standing ovation for actor and “hugely talented” assistant director of the production Julie Maxwell (36) who tragically passed away last month.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Lyric Theatre until October 5. For ticket information visit

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