Theatre: Chips and everything for Jodie

Jodie Prenger as Shirley Valenine (91) Photo by Manuel Harlan
Jodie Prenger as Shirley Valenine (91) Photo by Manuel Harlan

Jodie Prenger admits she hadn’t realised exactly what she was letting herself in for by taking on the 30th anniversary production of Shirley Valentine.

“When my manager said, would you like to do Shirley Valentine, my instinct was to say I would love to. It’s an iconic role, she’s northern and humorous and brave,” she says.

The dialogue feels so easy. It’s exactly how I say things

Shirley is a Liverpool housewife whose kids have left home and is stuck in a sterile marriage. Out of the blue, her best friend offers her a trip to Greece for two weeks and she secretly packs her bags and heads for the sun where she starts to see life very differently.

Prenger had only ever seen the film version starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti which visualises all the other characters who appear on stage only in Shirley’s imagination. Every line of dialogue comes from her.

“I realised I was stepping out of my comfort zone, probably for the first time since Nancy,” she says.

That was where her career started after she famously won the role in the West End revival of Oliver! via reality TV show I’d Do Anything and has since gone on to star in other musicals, Calamity Jane, Spamalot and Tell Me On A Sunday.

She also appeared in the farce One Man, Two Guvnors,  both in the West End and on tour, so this is not her first non-musical role.

“I knew I was in good hands, being directed by Glen Walford who has been with the show right from the start,” she continues. “It was he who commissioned it in the first place (for the Liverpool Everyman). He asked Willy Russell to write a musical and he turned up with this one-woman show that has become a classic.”

The playwright, responsible for other evergreen worldwide hits Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Our Day Out,  has been very much involved in this production, she says. He and the director gave her the confidence to carry the show on her own, although she insists, with the creative team behind her, “it’s a collective thing”.

Even so, she’s out on stage on her own without anyone else to bounce off. “I’ve got the wall to talk to,” she laughs, referring to one of Shirley Valentine’s habits.

One of the other challenges is that Shirley cooks up egg and chips on stage. “It has to be timed precisely with the dialogue. The tricky bit is the eggs, first of all breaking them and then cooking them to the right consistency when you take them out and put them on the plate. The great thing about Willy’s dialogue is that it feels so easy. It’s exactly how I say things – which a lot of writers couldn’t do.”

Prenger hails from Blackpool so Shirley’s Scouse is not her natural accent and she is also required to put on various other voices – the Irish priest, the posh neighbour, Costas the amorous Greek waiter, etc. “All that comes naturally, although my Costas sounded Russian at first,” she confides.

Shirley Valentine premiered in 1986 and this revival keeps it in the Eighties with Amy Yardley’s pine suburban kitchen set and topical references in Willy Russell’s script (like the F Plan diet and R-2-D-2). “There are hardly any changes from the original script,” she says. “I think at one time we were going to take out the reference to Paul Daniels but in the end we kept it in.” And one-liners like “marriage is like the Middle East – there’s no solution” sadly don’t date.

“When I did Tell Me On a Sunday we brought it up to date but this works in keeping it back then and makes it a lot more poignant. It’s still relevant to today. People can be stuck in a rut just as much now and you still need that inner fire to escape it and not everyone has that.”

Prenger also reveals herself as a talented physical actress with excellent comic timing. “Glen said go for it and I thought to myself I can do big and it was great to unleash the comedy which was a new aspect for me.”

Almost as soon as the Shirley Valentine tour ends in September Jodie Prenger will start work on Fat Friends the Musical which will premiere at the Leeds Grand in November.

Shirley Valentine is at the Lyceum Theatre from Monday to Saturday.

in shirley’s words:

I used to be The Mother. I used to be The Wife. But now I’m Shirley Valentine again.

I think sex is like supermarkets, you know, overrated. Just a lot of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little at the end.

I’m not sayin’ she’s a bragger, but if you’ve been to Paradise, she’s got a season ticket. She’s that type, Gillian, you know. If you’ve got a headache, she’s got a brain tumour.