THIS Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT) production of Willy Russell’s celebrated 1986 stage monodrama wowed audiences and critics alike when it opened at the “theatre in the hills” in the autumn of 2022.

Indeed, so impressed were my fellow judges of the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland that Sally Reid received an Outstanding Performance gong at the 2023 awards for her rendering of Russell’s titular, working-class heroine.

This revival of director Elizabeth Newman’s production (which plays the Lyceum before returning home to Highland Perthshire) is an unambiguously good deed.

For those unfamiliar with Russell’s stage play or the 1989 film based upon it, Shirley is a bored, taken-for-granted, working-class, 42-year-old “housewife”. She lives on Merseyside, but, thanks to the largesse of a friend who’s come into a bit of cash, she dreams of taking up the offer of a two-week break (avec the aforementioned friend) on a Greek island.

Performing, in the first half of the play, on designer Emily James’s no-nonsense, naturalistic set (the fitted kitchen in our protagonist’s loveless home), Reid’s Shirley paints a verbal picture for (the regular recipient of her frustrated monologues) the wall.

Told with warmth, humour, but also a strong undertow of pathos, it is a tale of a sterile, plodding domesticity to which huge numbers of working and middle-class women in the UK were subjected following the “normalisation” of the British economy after the Second World War (i.e. the widespread return of women from wartime factory labour to “women’s work”, often in the role of “housewife”).

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Women are now a majority of the UK workforce (even if the gender pay gap prevails in far too many areas), but in the late 1980s, there was widespread recognition of Shirley’s situation. Reid expresses the terrible paradox of her character’s life – an awareness of the suffocating narrowness of her existence, tied to a sense of duty that prevents her from escaping it – with a heartbreaking sympathy.

The Scottish actress talks in a well-observed Scouse accent, describing vividly and comically the lives of her errant offspring.

The jocularity and wit of her observations turn to enraging darkness when Shirley remembers the moment of unthinking, rigid domestic abuse that propels her on the plane to Greece.

(Image: Fraser Band)  Elizabeth Newman's production is playing at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. 

In the second half – playing on James’s semi-abstract set, which is dominated by shimmering, blue metallic squares (which evoke the Mediterranean Sea) – Reid’s Shirley is marvellously unshackled. She is unperturbed by her friend’s disappearance on an amorous adventure, recounting days of freedom in which she had an epiphanic discovery – not of the dubiously romantic Costas – but of herself.

As a work of solo theatre, Russell’s drama asks a great deal of an actor, in terms not only of the density of the writing, but also the emotional depth and range the character requires. In Sally Reid, this production boasts an actress who inhabits the role utterly and expresses her with generous feeling.

At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until June 29: Transferring to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, July 4 to September 28: