It’s a huge part, that of Shirley Valentine, in the play of the same name by Willy Russell: close to 17,000 words, delivered over nearly two hours by one actress who is alone on stage from start to finish. And actress Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan is relishing the opportunity to tackle the part of a lifetime.
“Playing Shirley Valentine has been on my bucket list for years,” says the Spences Bridge resident, who graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria. “I saw a production of it starring Nicola Cavendish many years ago, and loved it right away.”
She intended to go into acting as a career, and upon graduating became heavily involved in amateur theatre; her first part was playing Elaine in the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. She also acted in projects for a friend who was studying direction at UBC, and through that was offered the role of Pegeen Mike, the protagonist in J.M. Synge’s classic of Irish theatre, The Playboy of the Western World. It was the first of many projects with Stage Eireann.
Varcoe-Ryan won two Theatre BC Festival awards: Best Actress (as Maggie in Lovers) and Best Supporting Actress (as Joan in Remembrance). When she moved to Harrison Hot Springs she appeared as Gwendolen Fairfax in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It was in Harrison that she also got her first taste of directing, when she helmed a production of the play Canadian Gothic.
“I took directing as an extra component when I was working toward my BFA,” she says. “And I got into it at Harrison because there wasn’t a director willing to enter a show at the Theatre BC Festival.”
After she moved to Spences Bridge, Varcoe-Ryan became involved with the Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society, in its various incarnations, and ended up directing many of its productions—some at the Opera House—because there was no one else available. She also directed the theatrical component of the Christmas concerts at Spences Bridge Elementary, until the school closed in 2003. While she was still able to act on occasion—most recently she played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Mid-Term—it was difficult to balance the two things. “I love directing; but I’d rather be on stage.”
The part of Shirley Valentine is, she says, “a great showcase piece for an actress to do. It’s very meaty.” Shirley is a fifty-two-year-old married mother of two who has resigned herself to a life of tedium, when an offer of a fortnight in Greece with a girlfriend makes her wonder what possibilities life might still hold.
“It’s a wonderful part,” says Varcoe-Ryan. “Willy Russell puts so much humour with so much despair. Everyone will recognize someone in this play: their mother, themselves, their husband or wife. Or they’ll recognize some aspect of these characters.”
Although other characters are invoked during the course of the play—Shirley’s husband Joe, her two children, friends—it’s Shirley herself, with all her strengths, flaws, and insecurities, who holds the stage throughout. Varcoe-Ryan is grateful to WRAPS for allowing her the opportunity to play the part.
With Varcoe-Ryan taking centre stage, a new director had to be found; and Barbara Roden has stepped up to take the reins. “I hate to be that cliché—the actor who has always really wanted to direct—but it’s something I’ve been interested in doing for a long time,” she says. “It’s a fascinating experience; and at least I know that if I have any questions about directing, all I need to do is call for a break and talk to my leading lady.”
Shirley Valentine—a presentation of the Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society—will be at the Ashcroft HUB from March 11–13.