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“Shirley Valentine” by Willy Russell

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  • Pages: 16
  • Word count: 3933
  • Category: Play

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In the play Shirley Valentine, Willy Russell portrays a spectacular transformation in the main character Shirley. Shirley is a stifled middle aged woman, living in a typical urban area of Liverpool in 20th century London. Throughout the novel she is transformed from a suffering middle ages woman living in the stereotypical ‘kitchen sink drama’, lifestyle, to a spontaneous woman who is acknowledging how to enjoy life to the fullest. Shirley’s main change is conveyed in Shirley reclaiming her lost identity as ‘Shirley Valentine’. Russell’s true message behind this novel however was not to show the change in a woman living in a typical working class environment, but conversely to show the hard lives they lived, trapped in a cycle of deprivation. Numerous dramatic techniques are used in order to depict Shirley’s thoughts and emotions, but most importantly to help the audience understand the importance of her change. A few of the dramatic techniques which Russell uses are, flashbacks, voice-overs, speaking directly to the camera and dramatic monologues. In this essay I will be studying the transformation of Shirley Valentine and the dramatic techniques used in order to help the audience understand the importance of Shirley’s transformation.

The novel has many similarities to Russell’s young life. Many of the aspects of “Shirley Valentine” are based and were inspired by Russell’s own life experiences. Russell’s life experiences have an effect on the play, as his life experiences caused him to have many views which are shown through the play through the similarities.

It can almost be said that Russell is portraying himself through Shirley Valentine and expressing his own life and views of life in her character. The setting of the play reflects the area in which Russell grew up in, the urban streets of Liverpool. The young life of Shirley also reflects that of Russell’s, both Russell and Valentine shared the same dislike of high school and both dropped out of High school to try and pursue a better life. Russell, from a young age had the insight into the minds of women, living as a young boy in a house full of women, gave great time for the young Willy to become accustomed to the complex minds of women. Not only this, Russell further went on to work in a women’s salon giving even more insight in the daily goings on of women. This gave Russell the perfect idea of how the common working class woman thought and helped him create the realistic working class character Shirley. What’s different between Shirley and Russell is that Russell enjoyed his life, and his job is what helped to create a realistic yet sympathetic vision of unhappy working class women like Shirley.

Shirley Valentine is closely related to the genre of “Kitchen Sink.” Kitchen Sink is a type of Genre which depicts the real and often sordid quality of family life. The plays are socially and politically motivated, seeking to focus attention on the destruction of moral values caused by consumerism and the break down of community. Kitchen Sink dramas are usually on the reality of working class life and problems in society, most usually revolve around middle aged women who are stuck in loveless relationships and are unhappy with their lives. The play has many differences and similarities to Kitchen sink dramas. The main aspect of why the play is seen as a kitchen sink drama is due to the way Shirley conducts her life. One of the similarities between the “kitchen sink” and Shirley Valentine is Shirley’s tedious lifestyle which is shown in the opening credits.

The opening credits have a cartoon showing a woman (Shirley) doing household chores such as ironing and cleaning. These are all stereotypical jobs of a housewife, which show the dull life that Shirley is trapped in, relating to the kitchen sink genre as it is focusing on the problem of repetition and wearisome that surrounded Shirley’s middle class life. The colours of the opening cartoon back the idea of the boring lifestyle, with its dull blues and grey monochrome colours, it creates a vibe of unhappiness and dreariness even before the movie starts. The way Shirley Valentine stands out and is different to other ‘Kitchen sink drama’s’ is due to the many dramatic techniques which are used throughout it, which aren’t used in kitchen sink dramas. An example of this is talking to the camera; this is very peculiar thing as it is not usually used in other plays. The use of these unconventional twists makes the play different and more interesting to watch. What also makes this play different to other Kitchen Sink Dramas is that Willy Russell manages to keep Shirley as an independent character; these sorts of characters are not usually seen in Kitchen Sink Dramas. Shirley Valentine is also seen as too dramatized for a kitchen sink drama.

Class plays a vital role in the play Shirley Valentine. Throughout the play, we can see that Willy has very distinct views on class. These views are noticeable through Shirley’s character, as Shirley is the character the audience gets to know the most about. Her behaviour varies with different people from different classes. Russell develops the differences between Shirley and upper class characters by focusing on speech and dialect. When Shirley sees Marjorie after many years, we see that elocution is focused on. When Shirley is interacting with her neighbour Gillian, who is of higher class, voiceovers are used. Shirley mocks Gillian, ‘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.’ This shows that she believes that because Gillian is of higher class she feels that she has to make herself fit this ‘higher’ status and that she has to be better than everyone else. These characters help to show Russell’s thoughts on the difference between working class and upper class. Russell could be trying to send out the message that we do not have to be upper class to live a satisfying life. We realise this as we get to know the lives of the different characters in different classes.

The title sequence and opening scenes help to establish Shirley’s character by giving the audience a short taste of Shirley and her life. The opening credits show Shirley drawn in grey and blue monochrome, dull figures; this reflects Shirley’s life as a dull working housewife, as you later on will see in the film. These credits are repeated, which symbolises Shirley repeatedly doing the same activities endlessly. We see that her only company is the radio in the kitchen.

The opening song is rather downcast and slow, with lines such as “the girl who used to be me”. This implies to the audience that Shirley used to be interesting, and has lost her identity. It also gives a feeling of strive towards what she used to be as she regrets what she has now become. This one song and opening credits helps us to come to the conclusion that this is the downfall of her life. Throughout the beginning of the play there are no major sound effects. Pathetic fallacy is used with rain, when Shirley is sad. We often get sad lonely effects throughout her time in Liverpool, such as the rain and her footsteps. The dreary dull rain soaked streets of Liverpool highlights Shirley’s imprisonment as the colours in a prison resemble that of rain and dark skies. Russell uses this technique of making the surroundings un-lively very well, as it empathises the lack of joy in the life of Shirley. It also conveys the fact that she is lonely with no direction in life.

However, later on in the play Shirley is in Greece and the music is complete opposite to the opening credits. It is much more lively and up-tempo. The sunny sandy beaches of Greece highlight her new found freedom, as the colours of sand and sun usually are linked to freedom and happiness. It is very uplifting to Shirley’s character and her transformation.

Here again pathetic fallacy is used. The sun helps to depict her new up-lifting mood. When in Greece everything seems to go at a much faster pace, whereas in Liverpool things would go very slowly. This is to show that everything she has been missing out on is finally coming to her and has to all be crammed in. This also stresses exactly how much she has missed out on.

In Liverpool almost all the scenes are inside representing Shirley trapped in her domestic routine, whereas in Greece nearly all the scenes are outside representing her new found freedom. Also in Liverpool, there is low lighting and dull colours, however in Greece there are bright vibrant colours. In Liverpool Shirley wore boring clothes, and she represented the women of her era. Whereas in contrast to Greece she was wearing brightly coloured, revealing clothes because she has regained her confidence now that she does not have Joe to oppress her and put her down. She is now not wearing her usual drab colours, because she is not afraid to stand out the crowd.

The opening credits dissolves to an exterior shot of Shirley walking into a small semi-detached house with a small front garden, while carrying a small shopping bag. The fact that everything is small could represent that she has an unfulfilled life and keeps things to a minimum, rather than seeking bigger and better opportunities. The first interior shot is of Shirley in the kitchen (a typical place for a housewife, which also links back to the idea of the kitchen sink drama.) As Shirley enters and closes the door she leans against the door and sighs, this illustrates that Shirley is not happy with her life, she is sad. In addition to this, Shirley begins to talk to the wall. She puts down her shopping and greets the wall, “hello wall”.

She carries on talking to the wall for a few minutes talking to it as if it were her friend. This immediately gives the audience a huge sense of sympathy for her, making us wonder what has caused her to become lonely enough to talk to the wall. Again, this reflects the idea of the Kitchen Sink drama as it shows that Shirley is lonely, with what seems like no bond with anyone else. Shirley also mentions that the woman three doors down talks to her microwave, this shows she is witty and slightly confident. These jokes however are a way of her covering up what’s wrong with her. The dramatic monologues help the audience understanding of Shirley’s character as it allows the audience to know Shirley’s true feelings as she turns and reveals her inner thoughts to the camera. Only Shirley engages in dramatic monologues which pushes her in front of all the other characters as she is feels closer to the audience. What’s most important is that we as an audience stick by her through the most fundamental scenes and moments in her transformation.

Throughout the play we hear a lot more clever and sarcastic comments from Shirley. An example of this is about the strict routine her husband Joe makes her follow. When Shirley goes against one of the rules her husband has given her about cooking eggs and steak by cooking eggs and chips she says “It’s the Eleventh Commandment. Moses declared it. ‘Thou shalt give thy feller steak every Thursday’ “. This shows that she makes a joke out of things to make it less worrying. It also shows she pity’s her own daily routine. In the scene where Costas and Shirley are having sex, Costas makes a speech to Shirley and Shirley seems to be taken in by the speech, but she turns around to the camera and says “aren’t men full of shit” which she would have never said to Costas’ face. This reveals Shirley’s nature of revealing serious matters of life through comedy, which in turn makes the audience feel privileged to know her true feelings.

There is a point within the play where Shirley is contemplating staying in Greece. During a voiceover she discusses with us, the idea of leaving her husband to lead a life abroad. This moment is vital to her transformation; and could be seen as a life changing decision. Shirley tells us ‘I’ve got this thought in my head’, before Shirley continues, we as an audience and as her friend know her thoughts and emotions, because of Russell’s use of monologue and voiceover. The dramatic technique is very effective as we are not left guessing like we are in other films. The audience is also drawn in very closely to Shirley and we are left feeling as she is a real person who we can relate to and talk about.

Russell’s use of flashbacks are particularly good when showing the audience important events in the past which link to an occurrence which is happening in the present, helping to juxtapose and compare past and present. We are often taken to Shirley’s happiest memories through these flashbacks. One of the flashbacks is of her early married life in where she and Joe are painting. This shows us that both she and Joe used to be a spontaneous and fun-loving couple, before they changed into a stereotypical domestic couple. After the flashback we are told how things are with her and Joe.

She says ‘He used love me…’ and it is plain to see that he did because we had just seen her and Joe having fun whilst painting. The flashback carries on with Shirley and Joe in the bath together. Joe says to her “I love you Shirley Valentine”. This one line shows the love between them, showing that he loves her for who she is. It also shows that Joe did not think of her as Shirley Bradshaw, his wife, but as Shirley Valentine his partner in life, his soul mate. Another flashback which holds significance to Shirley’s transformation is of her in her local pub with a group of friends and her daughter. This flashback shows us of when she used to have fun and have a social life. Shirley and her friends are described to be ‘laughing uproariously’. ‘They were great mates. I don’t see them anymore.’ Shirley tells us. We know this because we are now seeing her drawn into her miserable life of being a housewife. We are now aware that she regrets her life and sympathise with her as her friend.

The flashback of Shirley in her school days shows us when Shirley becomes more rebellious. It also shows the start of her low self esteem, as demonstrated in the quote “the only thing I hated was me”. In a voiceover, over this flash back Shirley says ‘I became a rebel’, showing us that she had given up and allowed us to sympathize with her character back then. These voiceovers are particularly effective because they help us to know exactly what she was feeling, rather than just see what happened to her. Voiceovers help us understand that Shirley’s change when invited into her private world. Flashbacks help us to understand Shirley’s present mood. The effect of having flashbacks is to help the audience understand how Shirley got to being how she is today, and what influenced her decisions in life today i.e. drop out of school. This is much more effective than having the play in a chronological order.

Russell uses minor characters to establish Shirley’s character and reveal changes in her. She is subservient to everyone she meets. The relationship Shirley has with the minor characters is very different. The minor characters reveal the humour in Shirley’s personality, as she often judges them. Minor characters are also seemingly oblivious to Shirley’s sarcasm, as she responds sarcastically to many minor characters as a way of winning small victories over them rather than confronting them They are less frequent and of less importance in the play but they are one of the reasons for her transformation.

One of these minor characters is her daughter Millandra. We see that there is a generation gap between Shirley and her daughter Millandra. This is shown in the beginning scenes, when they are out having fun. Millandra shows Shirley that she is not as cool as her and is old-fashioned. Another minor character is Gillian, Shirley’s next door neighbour. She is very posh and Shirley says she doesn’t ”have much to do with Gillian’.

This is one of the ways Russell shows his views on class. Shirley might have said this because she might not want to, or doesn’t know how to relate to those of a higher class, or she possibly doesn’t get along with her. This also stresses the difference between her and Gillian. When Shirley talks about her and says ‘if you’ve got a headache, she’s got a brain tumour’ it shows us that Gillian is quite a melodramatic character. Although Gillian seemed to look down on Shirley before, towards the part of the play when Shirley is going to go Greece Gillian has found a new admiration for Shirley and gives her a silk robe because she reckons she isn’t as brave as Shirley. At this point Shirley was not going to Greece, but this gesture from Gillian, a character she once didn’t like, made her more determined to go. This is because she enjoyed the feeling of someone admiring her, and this is where the start of her confidence began.

Shirley has another friend named Jane. Jane always seems to force her opinion on Shirley and is always telling Shirley that she needs a break. She doesn’t really care about what Shirley’s opinions or thoughts. When Shirley describes her in a voiceover she says ‘Jane is a feminist. Well-she likes to think she is’. This conveys that everyone in her life has a sense of negativity towards them.

When Shirley eventually goes to Greece, she meets two holiday makers, Dougie and Jeanette. This couple think she is lonely and are obnoxious. They think they can help her. Shirley found it easy to confront these two because she believes they do not appreciate life for what it is, and how good they really have things. ‘The English? Don’t talk to me about the English’ Shirley said to them. This is a new found confidence in Shirley and she is now able to say stuff to people rather than in voiceovers like she done previously in Liverpool, this shows a contrast. Also when she meets Costas she gets kindness from him which she hasn’t got from anyone else. This helps her to feel more comfortable around people as well as herself.

Shirley’s state of mind and surroundings were completely different in Liverpool and Greece. In Liverpool, Shirley felt imprisoned, because of her husband, and was very hard on herself. Everything is done inside rather than outside. In Greece however, a large majority of its settings are outdoors, with natural landscape, panoramic sweeping shots, and plenty of space. This emphasises the freedom Shirley now has. The camera is often close to Shirley’s face in Liverpool, showing her emotions, which were often negative. The length of the camera shots are very boxed up. In Greece, we see no flashbacks, and the scenes are done at a much faster pace. The technique of speeding things up is used quite well to show Shirley’s new efficient life and transformation.

In the beginning of the play, while Shirley is walking in the rain carrying her shopping, she meets an old classmate, Marjorie. Shirley did not used to get on well with Marjorie and thought that she would look down on her, but in fact we find out that Marjorie used to admire Shirley. After this meeting with Marjorie, Shirley looks back on her life, and realises she is going nowhere. She makes a note of this and says ‘when Shirley Valentine disappeared’.

When Shirley goes home to her dull life we see her speaking to her husband. It is a very aggressive meeting where Joe pushes the chips and eggs she has cooked for him into her lap. After being patronized for too long by Joe this scene shows how scared but also defiant she was of her husband. She even struggles to say something as easy as she was going on holiday to Greece. This also contributes as a catalyst towards Shirley having the confidence to leave Joe and go to Greece. There is a quick transformation in these scenes. Shirley was before getting on with her life but when she met Marjorie again, things change. She says Marjorie’s kiss had ‘affection’ and this affection then makes her realize what she’s been missing out on, and how she is being treated by her husband. She then turns depressed. This one kiss and meeting with a girl she once despised caused a complete downfall which affects the rest of the play. This happens half way through the play, after we learn how Shirley was before though many flashbacks, and have got a general idea of what she is like. This then contributes to the actual plot as this is the turning point of her transformation.

In the beginning of Shirley Valentine, Shirley is a bored stifled middle aged housewife, but she transforms into a spontaneous confident woman with a new lease on life. We manage to see exactly what made her become the way she was in Liverpool, through the many flashbacks. We also understand her feelings towards her life through all her voiceovers. The minor characters helped to contribute to her change, especially Costas. Her affair with him helped her to realise exactly how attractive she is, and this helped her to re gain her confidence mentally and physically, as her husband’s affection to her had stopped. After her husband Joe follows her in Greece, their conversation proves the result of her transformation. Joe says to her ‘I didn’t recognize you’. This man who she has been with for such a long time couldn’t even recognize her. This proves she has gone through a vast change. Shirley also says ‘He needs a holiday’, this shows that she is aware of her transformation and she hopes her husband can go through it too because he could benefit from it, and can take a turn like her. She gains sympathy for her husband now that she has changed. Shirley is now not unnerved by her former oppressors and is far more confident with herself.

The transformation of Shirley Valentine could not have been so well empathised in the film if it had not been because of Russell’s numerous dramatic techniques. We get a true insight to the reality of ‘kitchen sink dramas’. Russell leaves the audience with his views on society which are shown through the character Shirley. He believes that ‘status’ and ‘class’ doesn’t make you any different to anyone else, and that everyone should be treated equally. Near the end of the play Shirley says ‘I think I’ve come to like myself really’. As we the audience are her new friend and have stuck by her throughout the whole play, the audience gain a sense of sheer happiness for her, and we are left with an optimistic feeling, knowing that we can change for the good and not let bad past experiences bring us down.

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