Educating Rita – Theatre Royal, Norwich

Writer: Willy Russell

Director: Max Roberts

Reviewer: Lu Greer

It has been almost forty years since Willy Russell released Educating Rita, and the world was introduced to Rita a working-class Liverpudlian and Frank her alcoholic Open University tutor. The story of Rita, sick of the banal chit chat of the salon she works in enrolling on a literature course only to find herself confronted with the world of academia and feels she can’t fit in there either, is a general idea seen over and over in theatres loosely in shows such as Pygmalion. So, with this story reaching its fortieth year, the key question would prove to be: does it stand the test of time?

Set entirely within Frank’s office, the play allows its two actors to really explore the characters through a series of episodes in their lives as they both develop and change. Jessica Johnson’s Rita is loud, opinionated, and sometimes rather grating for the early part of the play, but it quickly becomes evident that this is a careful choice made in order to allow Rita to develop as a person as time goes on. Johnson brings Rita to life in a way that makes the audience grow to love her, without ever compromising the roots of who Rita is, or her razor-sharp wit. Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank is the perfect complement to Johnson, as he begins the play as gratingly arrogant and brings nuance, vulnerability, and heart to the character as the audience gets to know him better. Tompkinson goes so far as to change physically as the play progresses, becoming increasingly dishevelled with mannerisms to match as more and more bottles are revealed on the bookshelves.

The single set for this show is kept simple; it is after all just Frank’s study. But the careful choices made by Patrick Connellan mean that it is an accompaniment to the characters, without at any point taking focus from them. The large windows looking down of the campus serve as a reminder of what Frank hides from and Rita reaches out to, while the bottles littered among the classics mirror the complexities of Frank’s inner turmoil.

When it was written, Educating Rita discussed the social classes, culture, and choices available to the people of the time in a manner which resonated with those watching. Now, forty years later the show feels just as fresh, and relevant, with a point to make and a reason behind every line. Thanks to exemplary performances from Johnson and Tompkinson, this show givens the audience an interesting and intelligent debate on both art and class, while bringing with it wit, humour, and heart.

Runs until: Saturday 15 June 2019 | Image: Contributed

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