Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Sarah Punshon
Reviewer: Katherine Kirwin
This well-loved, well-known dramatic comedy takes place entirely within the offices of an English Literature professor, Frank, at an unnamed university as he meets with his first Open University student, Rita, a Scouse working-class hairdresser seeking to know ‘everything’. Willy Russell’s play is known by many from the 1983 film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, which was nominated for three Oscars.
The claustrophobic setting of this play suits the space of The Round at The Dukes, Lancaster. The in-the-round format turns the audience into the walls of Frank’s office and immerses us in the action. Throughout the play, the space transforms from sanctuary of knowledge to stuffy prison trapping both characters. The space is Frank’s and its never-changing appearance contrasts with the transformation of Rita as she enters the classroom afresh, changed and revived by her new experiences and education. Rita flourishes as she discovers ‘everything’ through education and introduction to culture, which she feels gives her a better song to sing, and an escape from the relentless repetition of work, babies and pub.
Lauryn Redding gives a vibrant performance as Rita; bolding taking over the space and pacing it like a caged animal. She is her own Rita; cheeky and a bit saucy, a loveable scally, and is undoubtedly the backbone and spirit of this play. Her brightly coloured eighties clothing stand out amongst the beige books, brown whiskey and scribbled essays of Frank’s office. Andrew Pollard’s Frank by contrast is the archetypal professor – brown tweed suits and disillusioned with his own calling, both as a writer and as a teacher “I am an appalling teacher to appalling students”. Pollard captures the initial enthusiasm of Frank which wanes into cynicism and bitterness as his creation begins to no longer need him.
This production sets itself firmly in the eighties stylistically, and the script feels very much stuck in that era. Not only as Open University is no longer the escape hatch to social mobility it once was; as the director Sarah Punshon highlights in the programme notes, Open University now charges up to £17,000 for the benefit of this education. Furthermore, the relationship between Frank and Rita, when viewed through a modern lens feels undeniably uncomfortable; Frank’s possessiveness and control of his young pupil, combined with repeated compliments to her which verge on overtures, feels like sexual harassment. Frank is an older controlling male in a position of power over his younger pupil, so it makes sense that Rita pleads for him to “leave me alone a bit”. Whether the production made an active choice to abide by the text with a modern sensibility, or merely that the script is now outdated by recent events and movements, it is hard to separate our current cultures perception of these characters and view it as complimentary banter.
Overall, it is a strong production of a classic script, not without its problems but worth seeing and getting inspired about the possibility of change. Don’t buy a new dress to change your outside, buy a ticket to the theatre instead and change your inside.
Runs until 14 April 2018 | Image: Contributed