There’s an undeniable affection for Willy Russell’s 40-year-old, Pygmalion-like drama Educating Rita, from the great British theatre-going public. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and staged at what is now the Donmar Warehouse, it saw a much-loved and much-lauded film adaptation in 1983 starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine.
The story of 26-year-old, married, Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita (actually Susan) and her foray into the world of academia on an Open University course, and her tutor Frank, a career academic faded and jaded by university life, seeking solace in drink, this OU tutorship paying nicely for his alcoholic fix. Each feeds from the other: Rita’s world expands as she is exposed to the bohemian lifestyle of the students and Frank is energised by Rita’s lust for life. Each shines a light on the other: some truths are exposed, some assumptions shattered and inevitably, both Rita and Frank undergo changes, not necessarily for the better.
Four decades on (admittedly with a bit of updating from Russell himself for the 21st Century and this 40th anniversary tour) it still feels relevant, maybe depressingly so. Is it really still as hard for working class women, or those living in poverty to better themselves as it was in 1980? The ‘them and us’ world so prevalent then, is frighteningly familiar today.
Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson reprise their roles from the last national tour. Tompkinson’s natural hang-dog expression is perfectly suited to the world-weary Frank and he has time and time again proved himself to be one of the country’s most adept stage actors. Johnson’s Rita (Susan) is hugely likeable but her accent wavers frequently and her projection is such that it leaves you straining to hear much of her dialogue. That said, it is deservedly a British theatre classic, and still well worth watching.
Image: Robert Day