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Educating Rita is Willy Russell’s unforgettable story of the relationship between a feisty Liverpudlian hairdresser and a jaded University Professor.
Visiting the Theatre Royal Nottingham hot on the heels of another Russell classic, Blood Brothers, like many of his plays, class is at its heart, or more accurately the desire to break free. Rough diamond Rita sees education as her escape from the working class and so enrols on an open university course in English Literature.
The pair form and unlikely bond. 29 year old Rita fascinates Frank, while her desire to change and improve herself both amuses and frustrates him in equal measures. Each wants what the other has. She has a zest for life but has has never taken an exam, yet to Frank she has everything she needs but does not value it. He doesn’t want to change her, she wants to change him, and as the play progresses we see what is almost a role reversal as Rita grows and flourishes.
Tutor Frank’s disillusionment with life has driven him to drink, hiding bottles of whisky behind the books on his shelf. Shelves, which along with a desk and chairs form not only the set for the entire production, but also Franks safety from the outside world.
There are no scene changes with all the drama taking place outside the performance. We move from sequence to sequence with Rita grabbing her coat and leaving, the stage lights drop and Frank staring thoughtfully out of the window – all accompanied by music. Sounds weird but it works.
It doesn’t seem five minutes since Stephen Tompkinson was the young good looking one in Drop the Dead Donkey, yet here he is as the self-pitying alcoholic academic made famous by Michael Caine and making a damn fine job of being the jaded professor, allowing us to see a certain vulnerability in the character Jessica Johnson sounds as loud and gobby in the role of Rita as Julie Walters ever did. Together they are a compelling double act as we witness their characters develop and essentially swap places.
In the first act, Rita is in awe of Franks knowledge, whilst he is charmed by her uniqueness. By the second act we have seen a shift in the dynamics and a change in Rita. A change also displayed in her outfits as they change from stereo typical working class to dungarees influenced by students
Thankfully the play remains set in the 80’s and an attempt has not been made to change it. The humour is perfectly balanced and works well, having the audience laugh out loud from start to finish.
A thought-provoking story, Russell was inspired to write the play by his own educational experiences and aspirations. Is there not a bit of Rita in all of us? Wanting to better ourselves? Still having that hope that things can change no matter how damaged we may have become.
As moving as it is funny, you’re guaranteed to go away contemplating just who educated who at the end of the day.
Theatre Royal Nottingham
Monday 13 to Saturday 18 May 2019
Mon-Sat 7.30pm, Wed matinee 2pm, Sat matinee 2.30pm
£15 – £34.50 plus discounts for Royal Members*, Under 16s, 16-25 year olds, and Groups www.trch.co.uk 0115 989 5555
By Tanya Louise
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