Bringing Shirley Valentine to Belfast

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The Process of Script Relocation by Oisin Kearney 


At the end of 2016, I had the fortune of working with Willy Russell in the re-contextualisation ofEducating Ritato the Belfast idiom. I was delighted when I heard that another Russell classic,Shirley Valentine, was coming to the Lyric stage, and absolutely thrilled that the theatre and Willy again asked me to help. 

Whereas I met Willy in person to discuss Rita, this time we communicated mostly via phone and email over a few months, allowing for a lot of back and forth suggestions.As with Rita, it was a challenging experience to relocateShirley Valentineconvincingly to 1980s Belfast. Liverpudlian Shirley is such a loveable fully-realised character. To transpose her to Belfast required carefully balancing linguistic tweaks with social-historical context. Shirley’s world is a domestic one, and her journey incredibly personal. Any tinkering had to be justifiable. 

Once spoken in the Belfast vernacular, a lot of Shirley’s speech works quite well, however she has a lot of Liverpoolisms that needed changed. For example, ‘bleedin’ to ‘bloody’, or ‘little’ to ‘wee’. Place names needed tweaked too – eg: the bus to Frazakerley, becomes the bus to Donaghadee, whilst the Adelphi Hotel becomes the Europa. It also had to be considered that the Liverpool and Belfast accents have different intonation and rhythm, and sometimes it was better to omit words to create a better flow. 

Shirley’s journey of being true to herself is universal. Yet for me, what is most interesting about the recontextualisation of Shirley Valentine is that her journey would have been even more extraordinary for a Belfast woman in the late 1980s – arguably the darkest days of the Troubles. I have worked on documentaries about the Troubles, and had watched a lot of archive from that time, seeing how stop-searches, raids, riots and bomb alerts induced fear and a lack of connection, and subsequently, many people had hidden identities. Many people did not leave their communities and did not dare meet new people or explore new interests. For Shirley to assert herself against knee jerk ignorance, bigotry and provincial small-mindedness makes her a true Belfast hero, and one we could learn from even today. 

I was humbled to work with director Patrick  O’Reilly, Assistant Director  Julie Maxwell and Tara-Lynne O’Neill, who offered superb guidance and suggestions on adapting the text. It was indeed special to hear Belfast Shirley speak when I visited the rehearsal room to find Tara-Lynne pottering around the set kitchen – bringing complete authenticity to the role. To translate a text from another place, tweak the words, and then see the character born anew is fascinating, and I hope audiences have enjoyed meeting Belfast Shirley at the Lyric.    

 Oisín Kearney