Willy Russell’s tale of a brash Liverpool hairdresser’s desire to better herself through a new found interest in literature, and her relationship with her tutor Frank, whose disillusionment with life has driven him to the bottle, proved an entertaining evening out at The Theatre Royal. I had barely any memory of seeing the Oscar nominated, three BAFTA award winning 1983 film based on the play, in fact I had to go and Google it to find out who Julie Walters co-star was! (Michael Caine if you’re interested). So this was like seeing something new. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the show won the 1980 Society of West End Theatres award for Best Comedy and Best Play. Since then, Educating Rita has never been out of production somewhere in the world.
The success of the evening hinged largely on the easy chemistry between Matthew Kelly as Frank, the Open University tutor and Claire Sweeney as Rita, and the fact that it’s a well-written, warm and witty piece.
Olivier award winner Kelly turns in a fine subtle comedic performance as Frank and Sweeney’s machine-gun delivery of Rita’s literal answers to Frank’s questions show great comic timing. Sweeney also gets to show some depth as an actress here, its easy to forget that that is what she is, not the TV presenter she seems to have become.
The story takes both on a roller coaster journey to find themselves: in Rita’s case for the first time and for Frank to find himself again. Despite being over 30 years old the play still has a resonance today: our struggle to balance the need to conform to peer pressure and societal expectations and our desire to be the person we really know we can be. In some ways it also shows, rather frighteningly, that 30 years on women are still fighting the same fights. As Rita grapples with the trials of education, Frank learns to believe in himself again and to Willy Russell’s credit the play doesn’t end on the usual euphoric high, rather it leaves us with something better and more real – hope and optimism. This is deservedly thought of as one of the best pieces of drama of the last 50 years and this high quality production only confirms it.
Go along and see it if you can.
Theatre Royal Glasgow running until Saturday 2nd June