Educating Rita follows a hairdresser in her search for knowledge and meaning; her desire to break free from a working-class background and from the petty chatter she hears at the salon every day. Rita (Gillian Kearney) enrols in an open-university, where she develops a symbiotic friendship with her cynical, alcoholic lecturer Frank (Philip Bretherton), who has just as much to learn from her. Educating Rita performs at The Lowry, the modern theatre and gallery complex overlooking the silvery waters of Salford Quays, a perfect setting for reflecting when the performance is over.
Written by Willy Russell just over thirty years ago, the play is loosely based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself named after the classical figure that falls in love with the statue he creates. Director Chris Honer believes Educating Rita’s revival is pertinent at a time when arts budgets are being threatened. Education in both these senses is power, the literal ‘carving’ of a student.
This two-hander play is set from start to finish in Frank’s homely university office, an academic boudoir of books and plants, which Rita adores as a ‘tasteful’ mess. Rita believes that Frank knows everything – from what books to read to what wine to drink. Later in the play when she becomes ‘cultured’ and ‘learned’, Rita then corrects Frank, whose feelings become tangled in his literary analysis.
The theme of questioning empirical knowledge is enhanced by the absence of other characters. The audience hears of Rita’s jealous husband, Frank’s dysfunctional relationship with his partner, as well as the constant name-dropping of writers and theorists, but their existence and relevance are ultimately disregarded. Rita believes that Frank’s life is more meaningful as he is educated, that her life has ‘less culture than a pot of yoghurt’. However Frank proves that his life lacks even more meaning than hers. The problem is that initially both only have each other to compare to as opposites.
There is a strong feminist notion throughout the play. Russell says that Rita’s attending of university is an ‘immense political act’, which ‘was recognised as such by thousands of other women.’ A fantastic moment leads the audience to believe that the only way Rita can ‘repay’ Frank for all he has done, is to succumb to his obvious feelings towards her. However after suggestively whipping off her coat, she announces that she must give him a haircut, which acts as a symbolic restart to his alcohol-fuelled life.
An interesting parallel between Frank and Rita’s husband is implied as both do not want Rita to change for fear of losing her. The fact that she can change without losing her wonderful personality, but simply becomes enlightened, is empowering to watch.
Some parts of the performance are slightly unsubtle. Several lines are overacted and some parts feel rather rushed, for example the first lines indicative of Frank’s feelings towards Rita are unexpected, if not slightly creepy. Rita’s gradual change in dress sense into ‘classier’ clothes is also unsubtle, but this works well.
In general it is commendable that Rita at no point seems particularly servile, nor does Frank appear supercilious, which can be difficult in a performance encompassing these themes.
An enjoyable performance, which although is not always entirely convincing, is very entertaining and thought-provoking.