Shirley Valentine; Educating Rita | Theatre review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London

The Willy Russell double bill at the Menier Chocolate Factory is a treat. Meera Syal is irresistible as Shirley Valentine: warm, communicative and bittersweet. She has the audience eating out of her hand, which is probably preferable to sampling the egg n'chips she fries for her husband in the first act (you worry about the fire risk as, talking 19-to-the-dozen to her kitchen wall, she sees the whole meal through, apparently on autopilot, from two raw potatoes and a couple of uncooked eggs). Between acts, a stagehand sprays air-freshener liberally around her kitchen – and at us.

What is so lovely is Syal's animation as middle-aged Shirley, who feeds her husband, waters her spider plants and does a runner, invited by her friend Trish on a fortnight's holiday in which she will swap grease for Greece. At the press matinee, when Shirley reappeared on the beach in sexy silk and hot pants, there was a collective gasp of pleasure – as if the audience were sponsoring her transformation. Yet what Syal brings out so movingly is that Shirley is undeceived about her affair with kindly Kostas from the local taverna. She explains: "The only holiday romance I've had is with myself." Willy Russell's play – immortalised by Pauline Collins on screen – is more than 20 years old, yet it is, spryly directed by Glen Walford, as fresh as Shirley Valentine herself.

Educating Rita, first performed in 1980, also retains its charm (though less certainly in places) in an adroitly cut, 90-minute version directed with flair by Jeremy Sams. Larry Lamb convinces as Frank, a genial, condescending, disappointed professor who hides his whisky behind literary classics. When Rita arrives in his life, she intoxicates him in a new way. His mouth drops open repeatedly – like an amazed goldfish. Rita educates him. But she cannot make him interesting (he is such a poor advertisement for Eng Lit).

Laura Dos Santos catches Rita's garrulous curiosity perfectly. She combines innocence and experience – she does not need William Blake. Or does she? (Russell's underlying question about what education is for is as relevant as ever.) What an invigorating delight it is to see these plays together – female companion pieces – with their linked messages about two women finding ways to become themselves.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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