Sally Reid on playing Shirley Valentine: ‘It really resonates’

A lot has changed in the four decades since Willy Russell wrote Shirley Valentine, his famous a monologue about a Liverpool housewife ditching a life of domestic drudgery for a fling in Greece. As Sally Reid prepares to play the iconic role at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, however, she tells Mark Fisher that there’s much about the original that still feels relevant today

The first thing actor Sally Reid and director Elizabeth Newman had to decide on was the accent. Would Reid play Shirley Valentine with her native Perthshire lilt, or would she adopt the Liverpudlian tones conceived by playwright Willy Russell? “We settled on it being authentic to the story,” says Reid. “It feels so rooted in that world. I know Shirley is an everywoman and she’s everywhere, but actually, my Perth accent is quite soft and sing-songy, so we thought I might have to do an accent anyway to embed it somewhere Scottish, so we just went for the Liverpool.”

It sounds like a simple decision but it is crucial. Russell is one of those writers whose meaning lies not only in what is said but in how his characters say it. The worldview, the working-class sensibility and the humour are all locked into the speech patterns. The dilemma of Shirley Valentine, a 40-something housewife who swaps domestic drudgery for a holiday in Greece, continues to resonate but she exists in a specific time and place.

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“The sights and sounds of the industrial city make her who she is,” says Reid. “The syntax, the flow and the rhythm on the page is embedded in Willy Russell as a writer.”

Sally Reid PIC: Andrew JamesSally Reid PIC: Andrew James
Sally Reid PIC: Andrew James

The same is true of the period setting. The monologue appeared in 1986 at the Liverpool Everyman (due to the actor’s illness, Russell himself played the part for several performances) and much has changed in the intervening years. Back then, a woman like Shirley would have been born at the end of the war, her expectations shaped by a very particular set of social circumstances.

“I’m her age and the sexual politics feel like a world away,” says Reid, who is waiting until she completes her run in Pitlochry, Mull and Iona before treating herself to the movie starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti. “Yet the fundamental thing of wasting one’s life and being a bit lost could be any time.”

Period details aside, she has been surprised how often the play strikes a chord. “There are parts of it that hit home to me,” she says. “You can really get under her skin because it’s there in you. There are so many times in the room when we’ve both said, ‘That’s like my friend,’ or “That’s like my friend’s sister, she’s in this loveless marriage she can never get out of.’ It really resonates.”

Loved by fans of Scot Squad for her role as PC Sarah Fletcher, the deadpan foil to Jordan Young’s PC Jack McLaren, Reid has a gift for comedy, a humour that comes out of the truth of a situation. “My favourite thing to do is just be the person,” says the actor, who will be filming the next series of Scot Squad later this year. “I just love character.”The same is true of Shirley Valentine: “The comedy comes out of the human being that she is. She is naturally observant and naturally gets people. She’s not telling jokes. She’s talking to the audience. They’re her confidantes. She’s not trying to make them laugh; she just is witty. Then there are some darker moments that come out of the struggle she is in and she can make a joke about that – but she’s not making jokes.”

Sally Reid as Shirley Valentine PIC: Russell BeardSally Reid as Shirley Valentine PIC: Russell Beard
Sally Reid as Shirley Valentine PIC: Russell Beard

Reid is the same age as Shirley, but happily, where she differs is in her attitude to her career. The actor loves her job and shows no signs of a mid-life crisis. “In this industry you jump about so much,” she says. “One job you’re delving into the politics of Liverpool in the 80s; in another, you’re delving into the rise of fascism in Cabaret. Your brain is always working. You’re always delving into the psychology of human beings. That keeps you on your toes.”

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A familiar face on the Scottish stage, Reid branched out into directing a few years ago. She put her toe in the water when teaching students and has subsequently directed plays at Oran Mor and Dundee Rep. Her first mainstage production, Smile, about the late Jim McLean, manager of Dundee United, has been scheduled for a repeat fixture in 2023 after its much-loved debut just before the pandemic.

“When I said it out loud that I was going to direct, a few of my peers who’d been in companies with me said, ‘Oh, yes, I knew that would happen,’” she laughs. “It’s because I sit in a room and I see everything. I thought everyone did that. For a long time I thought, ‘Pick a lane, Sally, and just do one.’ But I want to do both and, certainly, Scotland is supportive of that.”

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Has being a director changed the way she acts? “It’s hard to know doing a one-person play, but I think it probably has. I’m making choices quicker.”

Although much has changed since 1986, women are still faced with a choice of resisting or conforming to society’s expectations. Reid is exasperated to find the play still topical. “It throws up the question of why, 40 years later, is this problem still so visceral?” she says. “I went on holiday on my own the year before the pandemic and people were like, ‘Who are you going with? Are you going on your own?’ I didn’t feel in the slightest lonely or alone, yet I was made to feel like I was lonely. Maybe we can start to change the world’s view.”

Shirley Valentine is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from 13–29 October, and on tour around Mull and Iona from 1–4 November. Smile is at Dundee Rep from 18 February until 11 March