Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Max Roberts
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Frank is a bitter failed poet and university lecturer. His life is spiralling downwards as his drinking threatens to get out of control. Indeed, in order to finance his drinking, he says, he signs up as a tutor with the Open University and is allocated Susan – or Rita as she likes to call herself after her hero, Rita Mae Brown, writer of her favourite book, Rubyfruit Jungle. Peer pressure is a powerful thing: Rita felt pressured at school to fit an uncomfortable stereotype and leaves with no qualifications and soon marries. But she is a square peg in a round hole, aware that she could expand her horizons beyond just raising a family. She has a natural wit and love of language so she signs up with the Open University, the University of the Second Chance, to study literature and eager to learn, well, everything.
She bursts into Frank’s life and each has a profound effect on the other. Rita moves from a gauche housewife to an increasingly confident young woman who feels at home discussing literature with the students she encounters. How will Frank respond to the confident woman Rita has become?
Educating Rita deals with some big issues around society, schooling, expectations and aspirations. Rita knows she can do more but her desire to do that puts a strain on everything she has come to know and accept. Jessica Johnson brings naïve excitement and brash confidence to her portrayal of Rita. She is like a whirlwind, never still with hardly a filter between her brain and mouth. When she comes onstage it is as if a spotlight has been lit. Her speech is rapid as Rita’s thoughts battle to escape, though her accent, to a midlands ear, at least, doesn’t quite sound quite authentically scouse.
Stephen Tompkinson brings us Frank. At first a bit bewildered by Rita’s demands to be taught everything, his performance is nicely understated. Initially paternalistic, we see his changes of mood as Rita becomes more independent and seems to grow away from him, like an adolescent child, and his own fear that, maybe, he will lose this ray of light in his otherwise gloomy existence. Watching Educating Rita is like watching an acting masterclass, such is the quality of the performances.
The reason Educating Rita works so well, of course, is the quite sublime writing of Willy Russell. With an ear for dialogue and detail, Russell serves up a script that delivers comedy and poignancy. It would be easy for it to be condescending towards Rita and her ambitions, but Russell skilfully avoids that: both characters have their own flaws and it’s quickly clear that each has much to learn from the other. The story is told in a series of vignettes over a year so that we see Rita’s growing confidence alongside Frank’s increasing dependence on Rita. At one point, Frank compares himself to Mary Shelley, writer of Frankenstein although his tale also echoes that of Pygmalion.
Max Roberts’ direction is full of subtlety, supported by Patrick Connellan’s intricate design of Frank’s office. As the scenes change, Frank is rarely offstage, emphasising that he is some sort of constant force, at least in his own mind. In his shabby suit and unkempt tie, he looks every inch the defeated man. By contrast, Sam Newland’s costume designs for Rita reflect her emergence from the chrysalis as she moves from rather conservative skirts and jumpers to brightly coloured dungarees.
Educating Rita is at once uplifting and moving, retaining its relevance today, almost forty years after it first emerged and won the 1980 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. A superb night out.
Runs Until 13 July 2019 and on tour | Image: Contributed