Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Max Roberts
This touring production of Educating Rita invites two contrasting reviews. On the one hand the York Theatre Royal audience on opening night found the combination of Jessica Johnson’s quick-fire Scouse wisecracks and Stephen Tompkinson’s rumpled charm irresistibly entertaining. Equally, however, it is not a satisfactory version of Willy Russell’s play.
A bit of background: The production, originating at Theatre by the Lake, undertook an extended tour in 2019, reviewed at various venues (usually favourably) by The Reviews Hub. This was a play in two acts, just below two hours of stage time. From July this year the tour resumed, but it was not the same play. As a result of covid precautions, 20 minutes of action was taken out of the play, leaving an interval-less 95 minutes.
Now there is a case to be made for this. The tour began on Freedom Day, so the company was splendidly quick off the mark in returning to business. However, there seems to be no acknowledgement of the cuts in advance publicity so many theatre-goers no doubt believe they are seeing what Russell wrote. You can, of course, compare it to heavily cut Shakespeare, but the situation is different: some of Shakespeare’s plays are excessively long – who wants to sit through a four-hour Hamlet? – and, more importantly, they contain peripheral characters whereas Educating Rita is about the trajectory of one central relationship, so any cuts affect that.
As possibly the entire Anglophone world knows, Educating Rita, on a simple level, is about a Scouse hairdresser who goes for Open University tutorials to a middle-aged lecturer, Frank, whose intellectual abilities are not matched by a sense of responsibility. She gets educated, he gets drunk, and positions, to an extent, reverse. But Willy Russell is a canny writer: he lets us enjoy the simple level while sliding in themes of the empowering (and stultifying) effects of education, for instance, or the need to be oneself – was Rita a neighbour of Shirley Valentine? At times the play is entertainingly obvious, but there’s subtlety, too, as in a glorious late scene (well played by Johnson and Tompkinson) where ambiguity reigns: Frank has given Rita his poems to read; using the critical apparatus she has learned, she thinks they’re wonderful; realising how shallow that approach is, he rips them up. Are they any good? Probably not.
Sadly the cuts make it a different play. The opening reflects this. Tompkinson’s solo establishment of character (booze behind Charles Dickens volume, edgy phone call with his girl-friend) is as stylish as ever, possibly a touch broader, but the comedy of Rita’s problems with the door has been cut, making her entrance a mousy affair rather than a farcical explosion. The trajectory of the relationship is disturbed from the start.
The interval, too, is a loss. We go to the bar, Rita goes to summer school, she returns more sophisticated – or maybe pseudo-sophisticated. In this version she struggles with the concept of objectivity in an essay immediately before a Cinderella-like transformation into an intellectual peppering lecturers with questions about Chekhov – and, if her performance seems a bit cartoonish, what’s the surprise?
There is much to enjoy. Tompkinson inhabits the drunken intellectual as to the manner born, Johnson capably delivers Russell’s machine-gun gags, Max Roberts’ direction keeps the pace up and the set by Patrick Connellan (sadly uncredited in publicity leaflets – there is no programme) with its old-fashioned comfort and steepling ranks of books is as striking as ever .
Continues touring throughout England