"Shirley Valentine," Willy Russell's comedy about a lower-middle-class British housewife who discovers Life on a vacation in Greece, is that rare thing, a one-person show that is actually a play.
There are times early in the evening, when the 42-year-old Shirley is talking about the bewildering way sex is discussed nowadays, that her rather tart comments sound a little like a standup routine, and the audience's belly laughs suggest that's exactly how they're received.
But late in the first act, she describes an encounter with a girl she remembers admiring in high school. Shirley, who dresses the way a housewife does when she doesn't want to be considered dowdy but can't afford to look stylish, runs into her friend unexpectedly and they go for tea in a posh hotel.
Shirley imagines her friend dresses elegantly and travels a lot because she's a stewardess. Her friend, amused, tells Shirley she makes her living as a hooker. At the end of their warm conversation, the hooker kisses Shirley.
"There was real affection in that kiss," Shirley says, in her distinctly un-posh accent. "It was the sweetest kiss I've had in years." Shirley, a down-to-earth woman, seems almost awed by the kiss.
As she describes it, you realize the audience, a moment ago guffawing at her sexual remarks, is now absolutely silent. They've fallen in love with Shirley. They're now part of a play, not a club act.
Unlike many one-person shows, where the character works hard to win our affection; you never feel Shirley is straining. She's wonderfully matter-of-fact.
Shirley has a friend who became a militant feminist when she discovered her husband in bed with the milkman. Shirley understands her friend's new hostility to men. Though her own husband is no prize, Shirley never becomes strident or political.
The friend offers her a trip to Greece, which she reluctantly accepts. She begins to change. In the second act, when we see Shirley on a strip of artfully designed Greek beach she has staked out for herself, she's a new woman.
She's had a fling with a Greek, but she assures us, "I hadn't fallen in love with Kosta; I'd fallen in love with the idea of living." This may sound grandiloquent but Pauline Collins, who plays Shirley, makes it utterly believable. Like the heroine of Russell's earlier play, "Educating Rita," Shirley transcends her class (a greater feat in England than here) and her limited education. In this play she does it herself, waking up to the possibilities of her own life, not the ideas in great books.
There's a wonderful directness to Collins' portrayal. Hardly prepossessing to look at, Collins is actually more attractive in her kitchen clothes than in her traveling outfit, which makes her look a bit dumpy. But Shirley's changes make Collins more and more radiant.
The role offers neither much emotional variety nor the kind of theatricality that blights most one-person shows. Occasionally Shirley imitates other people's voices. But Collins does it without losing Shirley's. To succeed, Collins must persuade us of the genuineness of Shirley's ability to observe and change. Collins does that so naturally, so gracefully we never doubt that Shirley has grown deeper. (The implication is that we can too.)
Her beguiling performance doubtless owes much to the shrewd eye and ear of director Simon Callow, who has kept her from ever seeming to act. "Shirley Valentine" is a joyful, captivating piece of theater.
Broadway has a new star this morning - a rather unlikely, nearly pudgy, almost middle-aged British actress called Pauline Collins, who may be remembered as a maid in the British TV series, "Upstairs, Downstairs," but, in this country at least, is remembered for precious little else.
Even in her native Britain it took time for her star to rise - and indeed it really did not reach ascendancy until it got the special assist of this present Broadway rocket-vehicle by Willy Russell.
The play is called "Shirley Valentine" and the absolutely smashing Collins is Shirley and Shirley is the play. Complete, intact, and untroubled by any other human actor - although Bruno Santini's admirable settings do their best as a supporting cast.
Russell, a Liverpudlian playwright, clearly believes that good things can come in small parcels. After his big stage hit - later a successful movie - "Educating Rita," he seems to have decided that a two-character play represented a needless extravagance in cast costs.
Last night, at the Booth Theater, Russell revealed his plan to double the cast efficiency by a 50 percent reduction in cast numbers - this new play positively exults in its huge cast of one!
Yet, like "Educating Rita" before it, this one-character newcomer is very definitely a play, and, in no real way, simply a one-woman show. It is a first-person play, a dramatic essay in fictional autobiography.
Shirley is a 42-year-old Liverpool housewife - moderately prosperous, immoderately bored. The kids have grown up and, more or less, flown the coop.
Shirley sits most of the day in her kitchen literally talking to the wall. She is not a feminist but she ponders on life's little inequalities, and wonders whether a day that finds its climax in placing her husband's dinner on the table at the precise moment his foot hits the Welcome mat by the door is really a fully fulfilled existence.
Things have changed. Her once romantic wooer has become a husband of monumental tediousness, a poor lover and a non-existent companion.
"I always said," she confides, "I'd leave him when the kids grew up, but when the kids had grown up, there was nowhere to go." So now Shirley is forced to admit: "If you described me to me, I'd say you were telling a joke."
But Shirley, thoughtfully sipping her glass of white wine in her labor-saved kitchen, and thinking earthy thoughts, has a dream. She sees herself "sitting by the sea drinking wine in a country where the grape is grown."
But with a husband who regards a trip to Manchester as an expedition, and suffers jet-lag even on the annual boat trip to holidays on the Isle of Man, her chances of wish-fulfillment seem slender.
Then life springs a miniature surprise. Her feminist girl-friend (whose "fella went off with the milkman," and who, to this day, does not take milk in her tea) wants company on a two-week holiday in Greece - and is so insistent on Shirley going along that she makes the arrangements and pays for her ticket.
Will she go? And will it make a difference if she does - or doesn't?
Russell has a way with women. Shirley, like that so educatable Rita before her, is probably the dream child of half the women in the audience and the dream bride of half the men.
The rest of us will just have to take the play on its own cleverly manipulative merits. The play is more fantasy than realism - Russell's jokes, for example, take the story herein told of a highly unlikely but hilarious school performance of the Nativity, are unreal.
And always Shirley is a shade too cute to be true. Yet Russell has a way with a phrase. Listen to him on some British (and I suppose some American) tourists: "They find the sun too hot, the sea too wet, Greece too Greek for them. If they had been at the Last Supper they would have asked for chips!"
This is not just endearing - it has a well-rung tinkle of truth to it. And the story Russell has to tell us may be massaging and soothing, but it is not entirely unlikely.
And Russell provides roles for his women. Shirley might well do for Collins (it has already won for her Britain's top theatrical award as Best Actress, just as the play itself won for Best Play) what Rita did for Julie Walters.
Simon Callow - best known in this country as a writer, but in London also renowned as an actor and, nowadays, director - has staged the play with just the right mix of art and commercialism.
Thus he connives at Collins flirting - outrageously with the susceptibilities of her audience, milking laughs, shooting out smug smirks in recognition of having provoked pleasure, and generally behaving more like a talk-show host than an actor.
But it works. This hammy pseudo-spontaneity actually adds to Shirley's air of self-discovery, her baring of her soul to herself, and us paying customers, alone.
Probably Collins would not get away with it were she not fireproofedly lovable. We want her to better herself, we need her to triumph over the mediocrity that smothers her.
We actually appreciate the chance to cheer her on. Here Collins comes to her own by bringing Shirley completely to life. She is talking not just to her kitchen wall but to the theater's fourth wall, to us.
This is among the most entertaining evenings in town - and both funny and touching as an added bonus - while Collins, Russell and Callow, not to mention those Santini designs, make terrific company.
It's commonplace to watch star actresses impersonate forlorn working-class women - they almost always win awards for it - but Willy Russell's one-woman play ''Shirley Valentine'' takes the truly brave risk of asking an audience to spend an evening with a performer who is unmistakably as unglamorous as her humble role.
Pauline Collins, the actress in question, has not dressed down to appear as Mr. Russell's monologuist, Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine), an oppressed 42-year-old Liverpudlian housewife who talks nonstop to the walls of her humdrum suburban kitchen. Miss Collins's rag-doll features, bouncy blue eyes excepted, are handsome but anonymous. Her curly reddish hair has no luster. Her voice is emphatic but only in the manner of a burdened weekend shopper asking directions from a bus driver. When the script calls upon Miss Collins to take some sun, she doesn't disguise the fold of flab between her bikini top and her chinos.
Authenticity like this cannot be faked, and neither can the chatty intimacy, robust humor and intense conviction with which the actress holds the stage at the Booth Theater for more than two hours. Audiences will adore Pauline Collins - not because she can match the brilliant acting of the week's other oppressed-English-housewife soliloquy (Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett's ''Bed Among the Lentils'' on public television), but because she radiates the genuine, unpretentious vitality of a warm old friend giving us the real lowdown. That Miss Collins captivates us with her honesty is all the more amazing given how frequently her vehicle seems contrived.
As a play, ''Shirley Valentine'' is feminism West End style; it intends to titillate and perhaps even shock matinee theatergoers with a mild level of ideological daring that will be familiar to those who have seen ''Steaming,'' ''Song & Dance,'' ''Woman in Mind'' or Mr. Russell's own ''Educating Rita.'' In these British plays, women discover that many men are pigs, children are ungrateful and autonomy is a birthright. A New York theatergoer can fully agree with the message and still be perplexed by the astonished cries of ''Eureka!'' with which it is presented at this late date.
Though Miss Collins often addresses us like a stand-up comic, Mr. Russell's heroine is tamer than equivalent contemporary Middle American women played by Roseanne Barr or Lily Tomlin. Indeed, Shirley Valentine is an updated variant on the sentimentalized, indomitable doormats once regularly assigned by Hollywood to Shirley MacLaine (Charity Hope Valentine, of ''Sweet Charity,'' included). The difference is that Mr. Russell's Shirley can free herself from subservience to a bad man (her callous husband, Joe) - as long as the catalyst for that liberation is a hot-blooded ''good man'' (a taverna waiter she meets during a two-week jaunt to Greece). Mr. Russell isn't about to risk offending customers of either gender. If he had written ''A Doll's House,'' Nora would have waltzed back through the door and asked Torvald out for a drink.
The playwright is a slick craftsman even so, and his first act, which Shirley delivers while preparing Joe's dinner, bubbles along professionally. Though the setups and punch lines follow a rhythmic formula - and though the mocking complaints about Joe are of Phyllis Diller bluntness -one laughs at Shirley's riesling-fueled explanations of why sex is like shopping at Safeway and why marriage resembles the Middle East. The Erma Bombeck-esque domestic anecdotes are jolly, and Miss Collins does a vibrant job of filling out the characters who inhabit them: the kids in a school Nativity play, a patronizing headmistress, a braggart neighbor.
By Act II, Shirley has achieved her promised leap of rebellion: She has traveled to the foreign land of self-realization by running away to join her best friend on a Mediterranean vacation. The trip instantly accomplishes for Shirley what an education did for Mr. Russell's Rita, prompting her to deliver a fervent pitch for taking charge of one's unused (or wasted) life. ''Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don't ever use them?'' asks Shirley rhetorically. She announces that she has ''fallen in love with the idea of living'' and that ''it's nice to like yourself.'' These aren't postcards from Greece - they're inspirational greeting cards.
''It's the same for everyone; I know it is,'' Shirley says. Mr. Russell spells out his messages to advertise the universality of his heroine's plight and subsequent triumph. But, as Mr. Bennett and Miss Smith so handily demonstrated in their television portrait of a vicar's miserable wife, the universality and pathos of a wasted existence are most touchingly conveyed by that existence's specific details, not by superimposed sermons.
The director and designer of ''Shirley Valentine,'' Simon Callow and Bruno Santini, happen to be Mr. Bennett's collaborators on his current London stage hit, ''Single Spies.'' They have done a sensitive job by Mr. Russell as well. The contrast between Shirley's kitchen imprisonment and Greek liberation is graphically abstracted by Mr. Santini's vivid sets, evocatively lighted by Nick Chelton. Mr. Callow, himself an excellent actor, undoubtedly played an important role in facilitating the seamless ease of Miss Collins's performance.
For most of the play, that performance is highly likable without being moving; the practiced, jokey writing can be as confining for the protagonist as a bad marriage. Yet when Shirley abruptly breaks comic stride in her kitchen, self-disgustedly demanding to know how and when she became a ''missing person,'' or when she later celebrates her stretch marks as proud badges of maturity, Miss Collins does dig deeper. While Mr. Russell's valentine to ordinary women may otherwise seem candied, there is never anything false or ordinary about the actress's heart beating so irrepressibly within.