Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Max Roberts
Set and Costume Design: Patrick Connellan
Lighting Design: Drummond Orr
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Willy Russell’s 1980 reversed twist on Pygmalion is probably best remembered for its 1983 film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. However seeing it in its original form on stage: with a two-person cast in a single setting, allows the themes and central relationship to really shine through. Russell is well-known for using his native Liverpool’s course humour to illustrate class divides usually with a strong female lead character, and Educating Rita checks all these boxes with ease.
The story shows the effect that brash, free-speaking, working-class Rita (Jessica Johnson) has when she walks into the office (and life) of cynical, hard-drinking academic Frank (Stephen Tompkinson) to be tutored for an Open University course in Literature. Rita’s passion to learn and to better herself ignites a spark in the stagnating Frank, and their platonic relationship flowers as Rita’s knowledge grows and Frank’s heart softens. Of course, this cannot last forever, and the relationship sours as the initially childish Rita starts to outgrow Frank’s almost parental influence.
Russell’s script is excellent, capturing Rita’s working-class opinions and enthusiasm as well as it illustrates Frank’s scholarly knowledge of literature and cynicism at life. However, as great as the play is, a two-hander still needs a couple of strong talents to pull it off – and Theatre by the Lake has done a pretty good job at casting this new production.
Often a ‘name’ star is used to sell tickets on the poster but is rather disappointing on the stage. There can be no accusations of such problems with Stephen Tompkinson, a familiar face on TV screens for decades who here delivers a superb performance as Frank. Tompkinson has the less showy of the two roles but is still spellbinding throughout being both hilariously funny (including playing several drunk scenes very convincingly) and heartbreakingly sincere. He barely leaves the stage but is always incredible with small mannerisms and bits of business adding so much to the character and overall piece. The greatest joys of this play come from seeing Frank becoming impassioned by Rita’s thirst for knowledge and Tompkinson totally nails it.
Jessica Johnson as Rita is also very good but is not quite able to match Tompkinson’s performance, making this production slightly unbalanced. Johnson is able to deliver the jokes very well, however, she seems to have a slight issue with her Scouse accent which slips on certain vowels and so consequently never allows her character to be completely immersive. She does, however, manage to still add nuance to a character that could easily become a caricature, and perhaps part of the problem is the big shadow cast by Julie Walters’ performance. Despite all of this the two work extremely well together and their relationship feels completely organic, real and moving.
Frank’s book-lined (and bottle-lined) study is brought evocatively to life with Patrick Connellan’s lovely set, Drummond Orr’s lighting design is both unobtrusive and interesting, and the direction by Max Roberts is good by virtue of being suitably unfussy. This is a very strong production which was greeted by gales of laughter throughout and a standing ovation at the end. If like Rita, you have never been to see a play before, this is a pretty damned good place to start.
Runs until 17th August | Image: Robert Day