24 June 2019
Willy Russell has gained a reputation as a great writer of roles for women – ‘Shirley Valentine’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and, of course, his 1980 hit play ‘Educating Rita’. His background as a hairdresser and a teacher came in handy when creating what has become something of a modern classic. The original stage production and subsequent film catapulted Julie Walters into the public consciousness and the success of the play sealed Russell’s reputation as a playwright.
The story of a young woman looking to an educated older man to help her improve herself, is, of course, not an unusual plot – Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ encapsulates it brilliantly as does the musical of that play ‘My Fair Lady’. ‘Educating Rita’ considers a number of issues, not least, access to education, and, on the way, provides an interesting advert for the Open University. At the heart, there is a love story here. Nothing overt, but it is there, and it is really rather tender by being unspoken.
Any two-handers rely on crisp dynamics and onstage chemistry and this production delivers a terrific duo in Stephen Tompkinson as the tutor Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita/Susan, his student. Tompkinson completely captures the weariness of a man who lives off his failure as a husband, lover and poet and relies on excess of drink to get him through. Meanwhile Johnson is wonderfully excitable as the fish out of water who becomes so at home in the world of academia. The development of Rita over the story gives the actress a really interesting challenge and this is well achieved here, as we see her become the teacher, to the extent of sitting behind the desk while Frank, fighting his deterioration, plays second fiddle.
Patrick Connellan has created a lovely set with books everywhere – and plenty of bottles of booze hidden behind them. Still set in the early 1980s there is appropriate props on show and a period soundtrack. Though the feel of the play may seem a little dated, any attempt to modernise would be ill-judged.
Max Roberts directs with a tight rein but allows the great humour and tenderness of Russell’s script to shine through – the final hug which Rita gives to Frank – an action not to be found in the script – is a move that just brings a sense of closure on the relationship.
‘Educating Rita’ is a delight, a thorough delight, and with two first-class performances, you won’t see it performed much better.
STEPHEN TOMPKINSON – FRANK
JESSICA JOHNSON – RITA
WRITER – WILLY RUSSELL
DIRECTOR – MAX ROBERTS
DESIGNER – PATRICK CONNELLAN
LIGHTING – DRUMMOND ORR
SOUND – DAVID FLYNN
COSTUME – SAM NEWLAND
A THEATRE BY THE LAKE PRODUCTION