Theatre review - Educating Rita, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
PUBLISHED: 12:03 24 April 2019
Willy Russell's masterpiece needs little in the way of introduction to the older generation who will probably remember when it came to fame in the early 80s both on stage and in film. This new touring production, currently running at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake, stays true to the original but is every bit as fresh and relevant now as it was then.
Stephen Tompkinson is perfectly cast as the brilliant, but over-drinking, Frank who reluctantly takes on an Open University student who calls herself Rita. Equally perfectly cast is stunning Jessica Johnson in the title role who makes a convincing scouser, a woman aiming for 'something more' than the life she has as a married hairdresser. Such was their chemistry that the audience took to applauding many of the scenes as though they were the end of Act one! When the play finally did end, most of us rose to our feet in appreciation that we'd witnessed something sublime.
'Educating Rita' is, at heart, an uplifting comedy which laughs both at working class life and the absurdity of academia. While most good comedies have a poignant moment, something more serious to take away, their aim is entertainment. This was Russell's stated aim too yet from the very opening scene until the final 'clip', as it were, this production is loaded with so much it's hard to know where to begin.
There must surely be few of us who don't find one or both characters resonating with ourselves in some way. Rita is still young but old enough to feel trapped in a culture and lifestyle which is strangling her. She wants 'to know' and is painfully aware how little she understands the things which are considered great - like poetry and theatre. Frank is old and feels a failure as a poet, as a husband and as a teacher. He is morose, finding solace only alcohol, until this strange, wild, yet exciting creature steps into his room. It is the classic Pygmalion tale retold drawing on 'My Fair Lady', 'Frankenstein' and Russell's own life in faultless blend. In the background, Rita's husband tries to control her, and keep her from lessons. But will Frank end up controlling her instead?
I can't help but make personal connections. When not writing what Rita would call 'crap' or reviews like this, my 'other job' is teaching, like Frank. I've seen dozens of 'Ritas' of both sexes go by over 20 years and I understand something of his pride, love and sadness at seeing them grow and then, quite rightly, no longer need your support. I've also seen too many colleagues worn down by the system but unable to do anything else, driven to drink. But I also grew up in the 70s and 80s in a coal-mining town emotionally crushed by the strikes and no longer believing in the post-war dream. Like Rita, I couldn't wait to leave education and then couldn't wait to return to it either, years later. I suspect I was not the only one in the audience to empathise with both characters in some similar way. This is Willy Russell's genius (and indeed a not-so-hidden theme of the play): He forces you to connect. Society may have moved on, but the angst of both characters is still there and their issues are still our issues.
Like Rita, in our youth, many of us wanted something more and yet, over time, come to appreciate what we had - something Frank doesn't quite manage to convey to his student. When it comes to the inevitable conflict between them, who is wrong? Is there a 'wrong'? Rita gets the last word on the matter, and rightly so because that's the point - She wants a voice and a choice. In the end, don't we all?
'Educating Rita' is sold out at Theatre by the Lake I'm sorry, but not surprised, to say. It is touring around the country and I couldn't recommend it more highly; it is worth chasing. Check educatingrita.co.uk for details.