Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Elizabeth Newman
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Talk to anyone about Educating Rita and two names inevitably crop up – Julie Walters and Michael Caine. To those whose only experience of Willy Russell’s meaning-of-life tale is the 1983 film, it may come as a surprise to learn it began life three years earlier, as a stage play featuring only two actors and encompassing a series of short scenes set entirely in one room. In this accomplished revival, director Elizabeth Newman proves Russell’s text is as fresh and funny as ever and unearths two actors more than capable of living up to and overcoming the memory of their illustrious predecessors.
Jaded academic Frank agrees to tutor Open University student Rita, who bursts into his office full of an enthusiasm and passion for learning that he has long since lost. Working class Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita aspires to know ‘everything’, believing that gaining the education she missed out on in childhood will help her attain a more fulfilling life. To Frank, her vitality and spirit is a breath of fresh air. However as her knowledge increases he sinks deeper into alcohol fuelled self-pity; concerned both that she will lose her individuality and that ultimately she will no longer have need of him.
Stripped back to focus entirely on the relationship between these two characters, the success of the production hinges on the casting. Jessica Baglow shines as the eponymous Rita; despite initially looking a little too young for the role she goes on to give a mature performance that captures perfectly Rita’s energy, wit and determination.
David Birrell is convincing in the quieter but equally important role of Frank; balancing his apparent apathy towards teaching with his passion for the subject, he exudes a warmth that makes you root for the character even in his most misanthropic moments.
Together they are compelling, as each scene showcases the gradual passing of time and the growing shift in their relationship. Russell’s script has barely dated and is often laugh out loud funny whilst simultaneously providing social commentary on the class system. The central premise – that an education allows one to have choices in life – is as relevant now as it was in 1980.
Presented in the round, Newman’s direction is fluid and the pace never sags. The attention to detail from designers Ciaran Bagnall and Ben Occhipinti is also noteworthy; the rain clearly spatters against the three large windows and Frank’s initially hidden bottles become more visible the further he descends towards alcoholism.
In his teaching, Frank frequently goes to great lengths to explain literary criticism should be objective and free of sentimentality. Theatre, however is often subjective, with every audience member taking away something different from each performance. Thanks to Russell’s witty wordplay and charming characterisation Educating Rita‘s strength lies in what it makes its audience feel and this joyous production will both touch and warm your heart.
Runs until 11 February 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport