Along with Willy Russell’s “Shirley Valentine” this is one of my favourite plays. Maybe it’s the down-to-earth, every day, strong female heroines that appeal. However, having done the whole Open University thing in my youth this play holds a special place in my heart. And with Michael Caine and Julie Walters’ brilliant film performance etched on my memory and a fundamental dislike for television presenters and soap opera stars, I wasn’t exactly anticipating a brilliant evening’s entertainment – especially after a somewhat fraught Monday.
The story is about Rita, a hairdresser, who wishes to expand her mind (against her husband’s wishes who wants to start a family) and signs up to an Open University literature course which involves weekly tutorials with Frank, who was once an aspiring poet and is now drinking heavily and living with a former student as his wife left him.
The set – that familiar book filled, dusty tutor’s room – was fabulous. So the designers – and the lighting chaps - deserve a pat on the back. Almost as soon as the first scene started, I was impressed with the quick fire exchanges between Frank (Kelly) and Rita (Sweeney) – and their natural rapport. Dare I say, it was somehow more credible than the Caine-Walters combo.
Whilst I was worried that the lack of other characters (as seen in the film) would diminish the experience, I found that the characters’ reports of the events in their lives made it more compelling. There are so many great lines it is hard to draw any out for special note – but I always liked the observation, coming from a hairdresser, that change within is more important than change on the outside. Very pertinent as the row over airbrushed models rumbles on.
Each short scene charts another weekly meeting and the growing closeness of Frank and Rita unfolds gently – punctuated with great exchanges and a good few laughs. The first half ends at the low point as Rita leaves her husband and learns that her Macbeth essay is worthless. In the second half we see Rita make academic progress – and a new social circle – as Frank falls deeper into his alcoholic self-pity. I loved that line “Pissed? I was glorious!” line.
The play always provokes reflection. The “escape through education” message seems strangely anachronistic these days – which is a great shame as hundreds of thousands of people have benefitted from the Open University system. Yet the idea that you can find yourself betwixt and between those you leave behind and those you strive to join must still be familiar to many. And the disillusionment we experience with those that we admire from the outside, when we find them less than we imagined when we join them on the inside is all too common today. And I think that I find Russell’s criticism of the “monster” that Frank helps create just a tiny bit unfair.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the performance enormously.
The show – which runs from 730pm to 930pm - is on until Saturday at Richmond Theatre and then it moves to Brighton http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/educating-rita/richmond-theatre/#