Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
The original stage play of ‘Educating Rita’ (1980) is a brilliant two-hander. There may have been some in the audience at the Yvonne Arnaud who expected to see a clone of the excellent 1983 movie of the play (I sat next to one such person) but to adapt the script for the cinema Willy Russell included 20 extra characters, who are present in the theatre script but not onstage. The dialogue between Frank and Rita conjures up the situation between them and the social conditions outside the study where they speak with poignant and sometimes highly comic effect. This is wonderful writing.
The scene is the room in a respected university where Frank, a middle-aged professor of English, meets with Rita, a young Liverpudlian hairdresser who has applied to follow an Open University course. Rita wants to “know everything” and so to move her life out of the track in which she feels her family and social class have trapped her from birth. Their relationship swings back and forth in “snapshots” of their successive meetings. His wonder and somewhat patronising perception of her naïve and emotional responses to the books the course demands her to read, and her awe for his middle-class academic world, give way to a more complex relationship as she begins to see herself as “educated.”
This is a sparkling comedy as well as an exploration of class and gender conflicts. It’s full of wit and irony from both student and professor: Rita’s sharp Liverpudlian humour bubbles and sparks in every scene, while Frank’s ironic view of himself and his own weaknesses is a great foil for her edgy, nervous self-deprecation. The process of educating Rita changes the lives of both, in ways that finally remain open to the audience’s speculation.
And so the cast of two are onstage for the duration of the play, and in this production they seem to me to bear that responsibility admirably. Stephen Tomlinson is not Michael Caine and makes no attempt to emulate him. He is the cynical, tired lecturer who has found himself divorced from his first love of literature; he glimpses in the uneducated, raw reactions of Rita a charm and honesty that the students who come to him through the traditional education system learn to suppress, in favour of learned responses from ‘recognised sources’. Jessica Johnson is Rita, spontaneously affectionate, easily overawed but made gradually confident, above all by mixing with other students at the OU Summer School which is part of her course. Her stage presence is joyfully active, veering from literally bouncy when Rita is happy, to angrily sullen when she feels put down, so that her physical equilibrium at the end of the play tells its story.
The play was written forty years ago, yet it hasn’t dated. The English class system remains rooted in 2020 as in 1980 and academic mores also endure. And in spite of advances in gender equality, many women’s options remain as limited as Rita’s, without a conventional education.
This review was originally published in Essential Surrey Magazine https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts/theatre-reviews/educating-rita-review/