REVIEW: Educating Rita – A touching revival that graduates with honours

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita in Educating Rita Photo Credit: Robert Day

Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Performance Date: 08 July 2019

Star Rating: ★★★★  

Educating Rita, one of Willy Russell’s best-known plays, draws on every emotion to produce a profoundly stirring, yet also comical two-hander. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and played at the Warehouse Theatre, London in 1980, the play starred Julie Walters and Mark Kingston. Walters later reprised her role in the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film opposite Michael Caine.

The working class, Liverpudlian Rita (Jessica Johnson) is stuck in a dead end job and a miserable marriage. She dreams of broadening her horizons through her passion for literature. In an attempt to break free of the shackles of her roots she enrols at the Open University where she is assigned a lecturer in the form of a jaded, miserable and functioning alcoholic, Frank (Stephen Tompkinson). With Frank’s help, Rita is able to find meaning through the education she missed out on thanks to peer pressure and a family expectation that it didn’t matter.

As a general rule, the themes in Russell’s plays tend to revolve around a number of issues that are easily traceable to his own early life. Growing up in a matriarchal environment, the women within his plays are portrayed sensitively, with compassion and this care and attention translate beautifully into this revival.

Jessica Johnson is incandescent and effervescent as the idealistic Rita who longs for more. She performs the character’s arc with a beautifully endearing believability. Thanks to Russell’s slick script her journey feels honest and well paced allowing the audience to see Rita’s transformation satisfactorily play out. Johnson is able to strike a wonderful balance between Rita hiding her insecurities behind her brash outgoing personality to her transformation into a self-assured and confident scholar. Always in search of debate, her hunger to learn and thirst for knowledge is incredibly inspiring. Her desire to move up the social ladder is the core of the play but is fraught with complexities and questions which Johnson handles with an incredibly nuanced performance. Johnson’s accent does slip occasionally which can be distracting but it certainly doesn’t take away from an incredibly solid performance.

Johnson is complemented beautifully by stage and screen stalwart Stephen Tompkinson as the cynical Frank who would rather be in the pub than educating the fiery and energetic Rita. The pair play off each other wonderfully and their chemistry is believable and authentic. It is a joy to watch Tompkinson play out Frank’s journey from staunch cynic to his overwhelming appreciation of Rita’s unique mind and untrained and intelligence. A failed poet and not a great teacher, Tompkinson has the flawed Frank down to a tee.

Under the direction of Max Roberts, the audience is transported into Frank’s book laden office. Patrick Connellan’s, stage design is a simple, yet effective box stage design which feels every bit as musty as Frank’s old corduroy jacket.

Education is arguably the most prevalent theme of the piece, but the role it plays is ambiguous. Given that the play is now over 40 years old, there are several stark differences to the education system today. For one the cost of education has dramatically increased with the average student walking away from university with a degree and a £50k debt. Here, for Rita, education is a means to jump social classes, to escape a lacklustre life, and to act as an arena in which she can make her own choices and be her own person. However, true to Russell’s style, the characters fate and ultimate happiness is left open to interpretation.

Regardless of whether you are familiar with the play or the film, this production of Educating Rita is a fine revival, full of rich performances, humour and a profound message that despite your start in life, you don’t have to settle for your lot. An inspirational and emotive night at the theatre book-ended by an acting master-class from the leads, Educating Rita is a play that broadens the mind and swells the heart.

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