It’s a rare experience to meet an old friend after 15 years, only to discover someone who has grown warmer, wiser and wittier with the passing years, but that’s just what’s in store for you at the Bluma Appel Theatre, where the Canadian Stage Company production of Shirley Valentine opened last night.

Nicola Cavendish has dazzled us all before on her two previous visits here with Willy Russell’s uniquely charming one-woman show and her comedic work remains as strong as it ever was.

She can rock the house with laughter simply by flashing one of her google-eyed looks at us, or cause a seismic eruption with any one of her devastating impressions of the people in her life.

But give her one of Russell’s killer one-liners — such as “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it? There’s no solution” — and the walls practically cave in.

All this is well and good, because a lot of Russell’s saga of a Liverpool housewife who is starting to feel strangled by sameness of her existence is meant to use Muhammad Ali’s famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” strategy.

But once Shirley decides to break away from her chip-and-egg-eating husband and grab a two-week holiday on the Greek island of Corfu, there’s a lot more at stake.

In the past, Cavendish’s second act wasn’t quite as strong as her first, because as the play moves toward its conclusion, Russell offers us fewer laughs and more insights. We come to realize that Shirley’s life is a metaphor for the same existences we all experience, and whether we choose to embrace the magic of life or drown in a sea of repetitive futility is all up to us.

This is where the 2009 model Valentine comes into her own. Cavendish understands this character fully now, with all of her potentially dangerous longings and unfulfilled dreams. She lets us examine them down to their depths and when she’s offered a chance to reinvent herself and rediscover the life she thought she’d lost along the way, she embraces it wholeheartedly.

What was once a very funny play remains that, but it’s now an incredibly touching one as well. And Nicola Cavendish deserves every bit of the thunderous, totally spontaneous standing ovation the audience greeted her with on opening night.
This is acting of a rare beauty and you miss it at your own peril.

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