Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Max Roberts
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Willy Russell’s 1980 stage play might well be remembered fondly by the nation when adapted into film in 1983 starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, but this new touring production proves that Educating Rita has stood the test of time for the last forty years and will continue to do so for the next.
Theatre by the Lake, based in Keswick, is known for its in-house repertory productions that play at its picturesque base near Derwentwater. It is unusual, therefore, for them to produce a touring piece of theatre, especially with a high profile actor such as Stephen Tompkinson. However, judging by the quality of this production it is clear that it is going to be an enormous success.
Rita (Jessica Johnson) dreams of a life that is more than working in a hair salon. She has enrolled in The Open University to study English literature and is assigned her academic tutor – weathered and disillusioned Frank (Stephen Tompkinson). On first arriving in his book-laden office it is clear that she is going to need a lot of work: Howard’s End sounds filthy to her and she is more familiar with Yates’ Wine Lodge than WB Yeats, the poet. Frank, a frustrated poet himself, takes on the challenge of educating Rita (whatever the word ‘educating’ might mean) in a play that becomes about self-discovery on both sides on the desk.
Influenced by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Russell subverts the idea of shaping an individual into a particular mould. Instead, Russell celebrates Rita’s uniqueness and refreshing attitude into academia: “I’m going to have to change you!” Frank despairs as Rita begs to learn how to conform. The play stands the test of time because it deals with universals. He superbly, through very funny dialogue, scaffolds a debate about huge topics: the difference between subjectivity and objectivity from differing class systems; the value of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; the value of opinion from different vantage points depending on socio-economic backgrounds; and what culture really is. As heavy as these topics sound they are discussed with such wit that Russell perfectly conjoins form and content in his writing – that is, the dichotomy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are balanced evenly in a play that deals with enormous subject matters yet is still an incredibly accessible piece of theatre.
Frank is a drunk and with ever more bottles of whiskey appearing from behind his books he becomes increasingly dishevelled as the play progresses. Conversely, Rita is flourishing – new friends, a new job and a new appreciation on life leaves her sparkling by the end of the play. And Jessica Johnson sparkles as Rita – warm but with a razor tongue delivering deliciously funny lines. As Frank Stephen Tompkinson is excellent – a melancholic, frustrated artist trapped in academia glimpsing a caged bird he can help to set free. “What’s it like to be free” asks Rita. “Ah … now there’s a question” Frank replies. It is these nuggets of genius that keeps Russell’s writing as fresh today as it ever was.
Educating Rita is a play that delivers a wonderfully rich, entertaining and funny night out but also a genuinely fascinating and intelligent debate into the worth of art and culture as a whole. It makes an audience question what freedom is, what education is and from what perspective opinions are classed as ‘correct’.
A masterclass in writing and acting.
Runs until 4 May and on tour until 17 August 2019 | Image: Contributed