Shirley Valentine (2020) Production Photo: Johnny Frazer

In a present-day atmosphere of panic, caution and genuine concern, the return of Willy Russell's delightful Shirley Valentine to Belfast's Lyric Theatre is more than a tantalising tonic – it's a cracking cocktail. Directed by Patrick J O'Reilly and featuring Tara Lynne O'Neill in a fully welcome reprise of what might be her best ever roles, the play subtly strengthens its emphasis on momentary joy and reflective pain to strike up another unforgettable bond with its audience.

Less obvious laughs, though there are plenty of chuckles, and more contemplation are the multiple hors d'ouevres of the day for Russell's heroine, her desire to break beyond the kitchen walls and domestication that contain her and jet off freely on a dream holiday to Greece being more than a little less dreamy in today's coronavirus-ridden context. But even if you looked at it from a more general, genial angle and simply enjoyed it from the prism of Oisin Kearney's relatable Belfast relocation, you'd find plenty of value – it is, as it always has been, a story about what is gone but not forgotten and what we still believe we can capture and recapture. Such is the strength of its core.

What I find perhaps most notable about Belfast's Shirley, Take Two, is that it revolves around more than the chances not taken – its heart is in whether we are really ready to fully embrace the biggest and the best of the chances we want to take. Neither Shirley's kitchen nor Shirley's holiday is a true Valentine – the former is oppression personified, the latter, for Shirley at least, is idealism shattered. The journey she perceives is every bit the emblem of what we see in the media versus what we see in real-life – nothing is coloured, dramatized, edited and highlighted for the pleasing purposes she desires and we desire for her. Selective thinking, it appears, may lead to living the dream – the happiness Shirley feels in her disco dance near the end of Act One remains untold – but full open-mindedness leads to living the truth. And whoever does so is much wiser for it. I can't think of too many Belfast productions that have deconstructed the alleged limitations of stability and the equally alleged perfections of finding oneself with such poise, elan and intelligence.

Credit O'Reilly, Kearney and especially O'Neill for this, the nuances in the Derry Girls star's performance attaining further depths. The tentative backwards steps taken under a kitchen table, the panicky vocal inflections behind the beaming confidence she attempts to project, the image of the bored housewife she battles to leave behind – all of it is endearingly representative of a most contradictory but most likable human, someone who doesn't wish to conform yet wants to belong. The pleasures in our laughter and her soul-searching are commendably countered by tragic thoughtfulness not only over what might have been but what might not ever be - a quietly sobering feeling that imagination and romanticism is so attractive precisely because it is relentlessly, elusively unattainable all too often.

Simon Fallaha

Shirley Valentine runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Sunday March 15. For more information click here.