Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Max Roberts
Designer: Patrick Connellan
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Educating Rita, now nearly 40 years old, is one of those plays that carries its production in its DNA. The director has few decisions about style, setting and characterization to make, only the difficult problem of how to convey warmly, convincingly and often humorously a changing relationship in a two-hander, playing just short of two hours stage time.
Unlike the film, the play is confined to Frank and Rita in Frank’s study at the university. Rita is 29, bright, married, a hairdresser who has vague aspirations of making something of herself intellectually. She has been assigned to middle-aged lecturer and practising drunk Frank for a Literature course for the Open University. The relationship blossoms and wilts and blossoms (a bit) again; there is a fond reconciliation before a parting, probably final.
Willy Russell’s skill is to combine the obvious with the subtle. He milks the class differences at the outset. The expected trajectories in their lives are there. She moves towards a liberated intellectual life-style; he sinks towards alcoholism; she is dependent on him; he becomes more dependent on her. But the play throws up other, less anticipated thoughts. Has Rita lost her individuality by pursuing the intellectual life? When, at the end, Rita can crush Frank by quoting at him what she learnt from him in the first scene, does that mean it’s right? And how liberal is a liberal intellectual such as Frank who is hidebound by views of society he doesn’t know he has? What, to get it down to basics, is education for?
Max Roberts’ production, in the later stages of a long tour, is sure-footed, amusing and moving when it needs to be. The play is rightly billed as a comedy, and no doubt Frank could explain to us that that is an attitude and an approach, not just gags and pratfalls, just as he does with Rita and the idea of tragedy.
The only lapse of tone comes with the characterization of Rita in the early scenes, probably no more than the first two – the play is made up of maybe a dozen short scenes. As tends to happen, Rita, the gauche and nervous motormouth, veers towards caricature, hammering the Scouse accent, not really natural in movement and posture. Fortunately, Jessica Johnson settles into the part, getting full value from the comic scenes while convincingly struggling with her and Frank’s inadequacies and arguing her corner with forthright intelligence.
Three recent productions seen in Yorkshire have seemed in competition in the placing and number of bookshelves. All have worked superbly; Patrick Connellan adds a frieze of books, but that is only part of a splendid set which is almost a commentary on Frank’s limitations. He may think himself devoid of class prejudice, but the old-fashioned academic elegance of his room shows where he is coming from. Music between the scenes matters – Rita has to change her costume, and sometimes her personality, between scenes – and understated guitar music with a touch of country is suitable and appealing.
To leave the best till last, Stephen Tompkinson is perfect as Frank. Alone on stage at the start, finding the Scotch behind Charles Dickens on the bookshelves and engaging in the phone call with girlfriend Julia about the eternal triangle of lamb cassoulet, pints at the pub and an attractive new student, he gives us the best of observational comedy. All the range, from wry comedy to intellectual over-confidence to self-disgust to genuine warmth, is there and he even convinces and amuses in the potentially embarrassing drunk scene after Frank, in the best Lucky Jim tradition, has twice fallen from the podium during a lecture.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed