One of our more mature responsibilities as human adults is to take our experiences of the darker side of life and transmute them into something we find useful, perhaps even telling stories about those things. Rather than pour pink paint onto the memory of a tragic event, pretending it didn’t happen, or taking refuge in some sort of denial, we can use the recollection to communicate something about survival, or conquering fear, or being emotionally present for new sets of people even when you’ve been used badly by people in your past. Ironically, writer/performer Sue Bevan has taken a personal tragedy and written a show and, by doing that, has shown that she can skillfully transmute an actual experience of her own by telling the story of a character who couldn’t quite do the same. Bevan has perhaps staved off a bit of madness for herself by creating Shurl, whose madness might just be charming and funny, or, then again, might not.
We meet Shurl as soon as we walk into the theatre and look for a seat – she greets us cheerily, dressed in a bathrobe, and engages us in friendly conversation in her melodic Welsh accent. Shurl asks us where we’re from and how we are like a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school, trying to make her charges feel welcome and comfortable.
Once we’ve settled down, we’re treated to a series of anecdotes about Shurl’s direct and indirect experiences as a child growing up in post-WWII Wales; tales which are visually evocative, funny, sweet, strange, and even horrific. Shurl uses her own avatar to tie these tales together – Singer Shirley Bassey, known to Americans, if she’s known, as the singer who popularized the song “Goldfinger” from the James Bond film of the same name back in 1964.
When the warm front of Shurl’s Bassey-worship meets the cold cruelty of being forced to give a baby up for adoption at fifteen, it creates a perfect storm in the mind of sweet, loopy Shurl that ultimately propels her from her home in Tiger Bay, Wales and around the world, following Bassey from concert to concert.
There’s no triumphant tale of self-empowerment, though, for poor Shurl. She’s done a bit of mild stalking of Ms. Bassey, sending her thousands of creepy postcards, and, ultimately, when she tries to meet her idol, it all goes pear shaped. Perhaps Shurl expects that Bassey will acknowledge some common ground – after all, Bassey herself gave up a child at 19. Bassey was also far from a jet-setting sophisticate; she was quoted once saying leaving Tiger Bay was “the worst thing (she) ever did.” But Bassey, according to Shurl, rebuffs her super fan, gives back all the postcards, and sends Shurl into a tailspin, from which it’s pretty clear she’s not going to recover.
I do hope that audiences will choose to spend some time in the company of Ms. Bevan, as Shurl or otherwise, because she’s a storyweaver extraordinaire, and a terrific presence onstage. Americans may not really know who Shirley Bassey is, or was, but they don’t really need to, and they’ll certainly know a talented writer/performer when they see Ms. Bevan doing her thing as a a part of this fest.
An Audience with Shurl will be performed again at the Midtown Theatre Festival on Friday, July 28th at 7:00pm, and on Sunday, July 30th at 2:45pm.