Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Babych
Designer: James Turner
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Watching Educating Rita on stage in 2016 is a slightly odd experience, enjoyable nonetheless. The play’s on-stage history, with many more productions in the last six or seven years than in the previous 20, suggests a current wish to get back to the original after years of domination by the enormously popular film version.
However, the film still casts a giant shadow. As Mark Babych writes in his programme notes on the play, “People are genuinely surprised when they realise there are only two people in it.” At the same time, the story is now so well-known that it’s become predictable. The issues Willy Russell covers are still relevant, but the story seems obvious.
To a large extent, this is a result of Educating Rita’s success, though there’s also familiarity with the same narrative trajectory in the story of the equally ever-popular Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, the Cinderella-like transformation of the young uneducated working-class woman by an eccentric academic who then resents the independence he has helped to create.
In play form, Russell’s structure is pared down, effectively simple. Frank, a university lecturer, prepares to meet an Open University student he has agreed to teach; she arrives, they spar verbally, they talk of calling the whole thing off but decide against it – end of thefirst scene. The same pattern of short scenes continues throughout, with differing time lapses between, giving a vivid, if gradual,impression of the changes in the characters and their relationship over many months. The emergence of educated Rita is balanced by Frank’s increased loss of control over his pupil and, especially, over his drinking habit.
As a two-hander Educating Rita relies very much on the chemistry between the two actors – and also on their verbal dexterity. This is very much a words play – interesting that the recent crop of revivals was sparked by a radio version – with dramatic and comic events mostly narrated.
Simon Armstrong’s rumpled academic is always convincing save for one excessive drunken scene; he persuades us of Frank’s mixture of academic discipline and personal indiscipline, of enthusiasm for the subject and disillusion with the teaching process. At first, Taj Atwal seems to be working too hard to seem natural and charming and totally Liverpudlian, though she gets her laughs right from the start. As the play progresses, she manages her transformations with subtlety, her performance deepens and her attempts to make Frank face up to his abilities and his failings have sincerity and power.
James Turner’s set is attractive, practical and amusing: the bookshelves that dominate Frank’s study climb vertiginously in ever more disorderly patterns. Mark Babych’s likeable production is straightforward and entertaining and the inter-scene music – from cool jazz to the Waterboys – adds nicely to the atmosphere.
Runs until 9 July 2016 | Image: Contributed