Theatre reviews: Enough of Him | Shirley Valentine

Two very different plays converge on the central theme of freedom, and what we are willing to sacrifice to win it, writes Joyce McMillan

Enough of Him, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

Shirley Valentine, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

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It’s hard to imagine two plays made in the UK more different in tone and ethos than May Sumbwanyambe’s Enough Of Him and Willy Russell’s great 1980s hit Shirley Valentine. Enough Of Him is a lush and intense 80 minute meditation, featuring four actors, on the emotional and psychosexual structure of the slave economy that helped shape modern Scotland; Shirley Valentine, by contrast, is a brilliant monologue about a working-class Liverpool housewife who begins to rediscover herself on her first-ever holiday in Greece.

Omar Austin as Joseph Knight in Enough of Him PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
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Yet both plays converge, with the same unerring energy, on the central theme of freedom, and what we are willing to sacrifice to win it; and no story embodies that struggle more clearly than the tale of Sumbwanyambe’s hero Joseph Knight, a black slave – brought back from Jamaica by the 18th century Perthshire laird John Wedderburn – who eventually won his right to live as a free man at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, in 1777.

Sumbwanyambe’s play, co-produced by Pitlochry and the National Theatre of Scotland in a meticulous and heartfelt production by Orla O'Loughlin, focusses on the vision of an intense four-way relationship between Wedderburn and Joseph, Wedderburn’s wife Margaret, and the servant girl Annie Thompson, who becomes Joseph’s wife. Wedderburn and Joseph are both bound together and driven apart by their often unspoken shared experience, in Jamaica, of the brutal reality on which the Wedderburn’s wealth is based; and their relationship has a sense of physical intensity, at least on Wedderburn’s side, that contrasts sharply with his impotence in his relationship with his despairing wife Mary; while Mary and Annie have their own battles to fight against the sheer weight of Wedderburn’s patriarchal and class power, which in turn distorts and shipwrecks his every relationship.

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There are finally no happy endings here, in this quartet of wounded characters; but there is some breathtakingly frank dialogue about the dynamics of their entwined relationships, and some exquisite acting not only from Matthew Pidgeon, but from Rachel-Rose McLaren as Mary, Catriona Faint as Annie, and a magnificent Omar Austin as Joseph. In the final scene, Joseph is legally free, but cannot feel any real sense of freedom from his defining relationship with Wedderburn; and there is a metaphor there for forces that still shape global politics, 250 years on.

There’s much more unambiguous joy – and a great deal of laughter – in Shirley Valentine’s famous bid for freedom from her life as a taken-for-granted housewife in 1980s Liverpool, beautifully captured here by leading Scottish actress Sally Reid, in a subtle and affectionate production by Pitlochry’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman, co-produced with Mull Theatre. Thirty-six years on, Willy Russell’s play shows its age in all sorts of ways; in the UK of 2022, 42 year-old working class women are out at work trying to supplement the family income, not talking to the wall in their fitted kitchens.

Yet at its heart, and quite beautifully captured by Sally Reid in an understated but glorious performance, is a timeless quest for the human right to be ourselves, rather than what society demands that we be. And in Shirley Valentine that story is told by a woman of such self-deprecating wit and charisma that no audience can resist her; particularly when she is played by an actress who also perfectly embodies those qualities, and who is rightly cheered to the echo, as Shirley’s story reaches its happy end, and perhaps a new beginning.

Enough Of Him is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 29 October, and on tour to Castle Douglas, Glasgow, Cumbernauld, Musselburgh and Perth, until 19 November. Shirley Valentine is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 29 October, and on tour to Mull and Iona until 4 November.