Talking to Shirley Valentine’s Wall


By Susan RobertsHaving recently worked on KickstArt’s wonderful stage production of Willy Russell’s play Shirley Valentine, my thoughts in the last few weeks have been influenced by Shirley’s life and motives more than I would have thought possible. When we first did the production back in 2008, it fuelled my desire to see Greece again, and the following year I began working on a novel – The Epidaurus Inheritance – which I set in one of my favourite Greek places. Five years on, the impact of a repeat production of Shirley Valentine has left a different mark on me.

I’m not just talking here about my nightly craving for chips, although that’s a big part of it. I defy anyone to watch Shirley lowering those cut potatoes into the pan night after night, and not generate a little saliva. Once I’ve listened to those chips frying and smelt the aroma, I turn into Pavlov’s dog. It’s not my fault that I lose willpower on my way home and am forced to make a quick detour to the all-night Spur in Durban North for a medium fries…

I digress. Nothing unusual there, of course. It’s a well-known fact that I’m easily distracted when it comes to food.

But apart from the chip cravings, I realise that Shirley has influenced me in other ways. I’m ten years older than she is in the play, and even though I don’t have a stodgy husband who refuses to deviate from his set ways, I see from a different perspective now the truths that she speaks to her kitchen wall.

I missed my chance to follow the fictitious Shirley to Greece because my sister moved to Australia – a move which upended my life in ways that even Shirley could never have imagined – and my Greek novel had to rely heavily on a trip I took many years ago instead. Perhaps Shirley’s rejection of what
she’s known all her life is mirrored in my yearning to re-acquaint myself with what I know and those I love.

Shirley wants to drink a glass of wine in the country where the grape is grown. Here in South Africa I am lucky enough to be able to do that without even thinking about it, but next year I’m going to do that with beloved and much missed family members in two other countries where grapes are also grown.

Two years ago I visited my sister in Australia and dragged her around Melbourne to the point of exhaustion. Early next year I am going to visit her again, but this time I’ll take in a trip to New Zealand as well, to visit my niece. I can’t wait. In addition to the wine, I hope they’ve both got good walking shoes!

Let’s be honest here, at my age plenty of boats have already sailed, but just like everyone else I long to travel to faraway places and experience another kind of life, even if it’s only temporary. As much as I tell myself that it’s for my writing research, that’s only a small part of it. The real reason is because I’m not getting any younger and want to be able to enjoy as much of life as I can cram in while I can still get around under my own steam. In the words of my favourite poem by Andrew Marvell, “though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run.”

I’m in love with life too, and like Shirley I don’t want to turn around at the end of my life and look back on a string of missed opportunities.

Eager for January, I feel that same sense of nervous anticipation that Shirley does, waiting in her kitchen for the taxi to arrive, talking to her wall as she goes through her checklist in her head. “Tickets? Passport? Money?” Yes. I have my tickets, passport and an overdrawn credit card (which comes to the same thing really), and I’m ready to face the world.

Bring on those grapes!


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