Educating Rita

Reviewer's rating

To mark the 40th anniversary of Willy Russell’s accomplished play Educating Rita, a fine and faithful production is touring the land.

The play is a wry and touching two-hander – Rita, a married Liverpudlian hairdresser who left school at 15 and has joined the Open University somewhat desperately hoping to get her education belatedly and expand her mind and her horizons despite objections from her husband and friends – and Frank, a dishevelled professor and minor poet moonlighting with the Open University out of hours to help fund his drinking habit: an alcoholic, self-pitying man but also a very intelligent tutor who grows very serious about educating Rita.

Of course each character has many things to teach the other and we watch both characters grow and change in their relation to each other through a series of vignette-like scenes. We also learn a lot about their lives outside the tutorial office and about the impact on both not only of the processes of learning and teaching but also of the development of a relationship between tutor and student. This is a complex play made direct and comprehensible by two very fine performances. The journeys of both characters are clearly observed and are completely engaging; the two people are also at times frustrating yet ultimately inspiring. This is a tight and well-constructed play with a lot of entertaining and sometimes provocative dialogue that creates a completely believable world.

Stephen Tompkinson is totally convincing and also attractive as the self-hating, disappointed professor whose mentoring of Rita brings out the best in him and gets him questioning and facing his demons; and Jessica Johnson is utterly charming and completely captivating as Rita, moving from desperation to a kind of wisdom. You cannot help cheering her on as she grows, develops and even, for a while, changes her accent. Both actors are very funny and manage to convey a great range of thoughts and reactions.

The director Max Roberts has done a very fine job keeping the play moving along. All scene changes and time jumps are completely in the hands of the two actors and they never miss a beat. You may only see two actors up there but somehow the clever script and the performances suggest the context of these two characters, their worlds come alive, and you leave the theatre having made their journeys with them with great pleasure. The fine set design by Patrick Connellan evokes the feel of those well-made West End plays of the past; the costumes seem very much of the era of the story; and the whole show is an excellent way to experience this clever script. Forty years on this play is more relevant and touching than ever.