Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Max Roberts
Set and Costumes: Patrick Connellan
Lighting Design: Drummond Orr
Sound Design: David Flynn
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
Willy Russell is rightly famous for his strong female characters, usually arising from his tough working-class upbringing in Liverpool in the fifties. Born to a father who worked in a factory and a mother who went from nursing to a warehouse for better pay, Russell left school with one O level and trained – somewhat inexplicably, at his mother’s suggestion – as a ladies’ hairdresser. He knew he was on the wrong route, and could never settle in his life, resorting to trying his hand at writing in the back room of his salon on quiet days. A hairdressing salon, especially in the 60s, was the epitome of insight into the female character, and it was from here, blended with the women in his childhood, that Russell found the inspiration for ‘heroines’ such as Rita, Shirley Valentine and Mrs Johnstone in his plays. Taking on a dangerous and menial job cleaning grease from industrial machinery enabled Russell to pay his way through college, as was the necessity at that time, and he emerged with the power of education to pen some of our best-known contemporary works.
This 2019 production of Educating Rita from The Theatre by the Lake is excellently cast. The play runs with just the two characters, unlike the film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine when some 20-odd extra people were introduced to pad out the story. Rita and Frank are all that is needed, anyone else is brought to life by their words. Why would we wish to meet Rita’s prehistoric husband Danny, who stoops to burning her books and papers in a bid to prevent her learning? Or Frank’s girlfriend Julie, who obsesses about her ‘cassoulets’ to the extent of spending half her life with her head in the oven? Stephen Tompkinson is the perfect, slightly mad, worn out, eccentric-turned-to-drink lecturer/academic, who is worn down by life, rarely goes out for any fresh air, and desperately needs a new purpose in his life. His study is lined with books, and behind every line is a bottle of something strong. His fresh air and new purpose in life breezes through the door, well … rather, fights her way in via the faulty knob … and Jessica Johnson introduces herself, eventually, as Rita (who was Susan, but wanted a more popular name).
The chemistry between these two actors works brilliantly, they play off one another – the young, feisty woman who wants more from her life, and the burnt-out professor who needs to find more life. The irony is that they need each other, and by meeting both their lives will be changed. The story is undoubtedly autobiographical on Willy Russell’s part, championing the power that education brings, even down to the point that Rita is a hairdresser when she stumbles into Frank’s study to undertake Open University learning – tutoring for which Frank has reluctantly taken on “to pay for the drink”.
We see Rita transformed by re-entering education. Once she can produce a passable essay, she gets an insatiable thirst for knowledge, attending Summer School, discussing ideas and literary works with other students (and anyone else who will listen), and dressing in that timeless “hippy prep” style adopted by college kids everywhere. Her tough edge remains, but the rounded character that she becomes is a world away from the husband that she married too young and the narrow life that she was destined to lead. Likewise, Frank is transformed by Rita entering his life. He is still the down-at-heel, corduroy-wearing, scruffily-long-haired hard drinker, but he actually begins to look forward to Rita’s tutorials, heatedly urging her on to appreciate good literature and take that exam. When an offer of a sabbatical in Australia comes up, he takes it, a new start as a choice preferable to dismissal for drunkenness. Will Rita join him? It appears so … on condition that he allows her to wield her hairdressing scissors one more time.
This is a powerful play, and this production is a very traditional one. Setting and costumes are timeless, designed to get across the message that it is the words, not the visuals that do the talking. There is sometimes an issue with the Liverpudlian accent, and the play is quite ‘wordy’, but that can be forgiven. Go along and ponder just what makes a person who they are, if our lives could be changed by taking another direction, and if it’s ever too late to make that change. Learning is power after all, and not all learning always comes from books for everyone.
Runs until Saturday 27 July 2019 Touring Nationwide | Image: Robert Day