Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Stratton
Set and Lighting: Graham Kirk
Costumes: Christine Wall
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Esk Valley Theatre is one of the more unusual success stories in British theatre. Every August, Mark Stratton and Sheila Carter take over the Robinson Institute in the moors village of Glaisdale. Graham Kirk brings in his considerable construction skills to transform a village hall into an intimate 102-seat theatre with excellent sight-lines and acoustics and all is set for a long run of one play. This year, the excellence of the production of Educating Rita and the tiny number of unsold seats, tick the two main boxes for theatrical success.
Educating Rita is well suited to the Esk Valley Theatre. A two-hander with one very self-contained set – a splendidly claustrophobic study with looming bookshelves – it actually benefits from the wing-less Robinson stage, with the door, the key to much comedy and some drama, firmly in view in the centre of the back wall.
Willy Russell’s original play is enjoying a spate of revivals – this is the second in Yorkshire in a few months – and, though the more expansive film is better known, audiences clearly enjoy the original pared down version. The play follows a simple structure. University tutor Frank takes on an Open University student, Rita, bright, intelligent and intuitive, but uneducated and unable, at first, to separate emotional response from analysis. In a series of short scenes he tries, with increasing success, to instil an academic attitude in her; their rather messy private lives get an airing; she develops confidence; he perhaps resents her increased independence – and his own dependence on alcohol, there from the start, becomes more obvious. The interval coincides with Rita’s successful summer school and after that the dual process accelerates, she moving away from dependence on her mentor, he losing his hand-hold on respectability.
Russell pursues such themes as the actual value of an academic education and the civilising effect of literature, but the essence of the play is the ambiguous and shifting relationship between Frank and Rita – and it is here that Mark Stratton’s direct and thoughtful production is particularly strong. Under his direction, Amy Spencer avoids the pitfall of making Rita a lovably daffy Scouse ingénue. That way there are plenty of laughs in the opening scenes, but the development is harder to believe. Spencer’s Rita acts her age (she is 29, young, but not a kid), gets her laughs without going over the top and carries complete conviction in her transformation. Ian Crowe is an articulate and, initially, controlled Frank; it is easy to believe that he is holding down a respectable post despite the whisky bottles behind the great authors on his shelves. He gets through the difficult collapsing drunk scene with a modicum of conviction and is increasingly affecting in the late scenes as his life unravels.
Rita’s constantly changing costumes (design Christine Wall) are a reliable and sometimes entertaining road map to her social condition, self-confidence, aspirations, and pretensions. And, while Amy Spencer’s changing, the inter-scene bursts of music are cleverly chosen: a burst of Grieg to go with Rita’s famous essay on Peer Gynt, for instance.
Runs until 3 September 2016 | Image: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media