Darlington Hippodrome – until 17 August 2019
Entering the theatre you are greeted with the sight of Patrick Connellans glorious set. The musty dusty academics office, filled with shelves upon shelves of books – some of which are hiding bottles of scotch. It is such a visual representation that it immediately draws you in and transports you to 1980’s Liverpool.
University Tutor Frank (Stephen Tompkinson) has taken on extra work from the Open University to help fund his alcohol habit. His first student is hairdresser Rita (Jessica Johnson). Really called Susan, she has changed her name to the more “glamorous” Rita. She wants to find herself before settling down to motherhood despite her husbands opposition to her learning.
Despite his obvious dissatisfaction with the situation, Frank agrees to teach Rita the classics and aid her in passing the exams, mainly because of her insatiable appetite to learn and her unconventional personality. Although their friendship blossoms initially, Frank becomes jealous of his protégé’s new found friends and lifestyle which he decreasingly has control over. He is left in solitude rueing life’s mistakes, while Rita dazzles with her intellect. What starts out as Frank the tutor and Rita the student, it becomes obvious that Rita is teaching Frank as much about life as he is teaching her about literature
Tompkinson gives a solid and committed performance as Frank, his portrayal of the often inebriated professor is well executed as he swings through states of subdued, melancholic thought to irate, persistent lecturing. He plays the role with an individuality which the softer and more intimate scenes require. Johnson’s Rita is colourful and comic; in her first meeting with Frank she confuses Yeats the poet with the Yates pub chain and whose solution to the challenge of staging Peer Gynt is to put it on the radio instead. Her ability to deliver Rita’s lines with genuine and unabashed honesty makes the character instantly likeable and instantly relatable. Undoubtedly, in a two-player performance such as Educating Rita, the chemistry between actors should sustain the play and audience and this does.
Willy Russel knows how to write strong women, be it Shirley Valentine, Mrs Johnston from Blood Brothers or Rita. All of them searching for happiness, with high hopes and ambition. Educating Rita has barely dated and is laugh out loud funny whilst providing social commentary on the class system. The central premise – that an education allows one to have choices in life – is as relevant now as it was in 1980.