Review: Educating Rita
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REVIEW: Educating Rita, Salisbury Playhouse
Two worlds collide from the start in Willy Russell’s timeless two-hander Educating Rita when gobby Liverpudlian hairdresser Susan (now calling herself Rita) arrives for her first Open University tutorial.
Her tutor is Frank, jaded professor, failed poet and successful alcoholic, whose cache of whisky is concealed behind the works of literature on his bookshelves.
Jessica Johnson is self-assured as the irrepressible Rita, whose determination to better herself has prompted her to defy her husband, family and working class friends to seek the education that she missed out on as work and marriage took over her life.
Johnson’s confidence in the part increases as Rita herself gains more confidence in her abilities, and she gives an impressive performance.
Stephen Tompkinson is superb as Frank, sometimes irascible, bitter and cynical, sometimes pathetic, but always endearing.
To start with, he is sceptical of Rita’s academic potential and unwilling to take her on as a student. Her response to an essay question about the difficulties of staging Peer Gynt is a single sentence: Do it on the radio; and the book she has most enjoyed up till now appears to be a dubious pot–boiler entitled Ruby Through the Jungle.
Yet Frank’s weary soul cannot fail to be affected by Rita’s hunger for learning (not, apparently, matched by his other students) and her candid, if naive, reactions to the books to which he introduces her.
It is clear that despite the vagaries of the syllabus (if it even exists: Frank just seems to pull books off his shelves for her at random) and the fact that a love of literature is not enough (Rita has to learn to jump through the right academic hoops in order to pass her exams) Frank does manage to teach her something.
But that, ultimately, is the problem between them. By giving her access to the social and educational worlds to which she aspires, he has removed the naive spontaneity that was, for him, her most endearing quality; she has become a clone of the other literature students he encounters and despises on a daily basis for their pretentiousness.
His comparison of himself to Mary Shelley is telling: he believes he has created a monster. Rita doesn’t see it like that. He has no right to keep her down for his own amusement, and she has every right to seek out and embrace the possibilities that an education can give her.
The play traces the journey of the relationship between Frank and Rita over the course of a year, and all the action takes place in Frank’s college room, brilliantly evoked by Patrick Connellan’s magnificent set with its wall-to-wall bookcases and period touches: a typewriter here, a battered old file cabinet there.
It is a tour de force, with Tompkinson only leaving the stage once and with the passage of time marked by music, the slight dimming of the lights and Frank’s casual re-arrangement of the items in his room.
The play ends with Frank being packed off for an enforced sabbatical in Australia. He didn’t “b***** the bursar”, the only crime for which he thought the university authorities would actually kick him out, but his alcoholism has reached the level where the students are complaining and something has had to be done.
The final moments, in which Rita reverts to her old trade and gives him a haircut to smarten him up, are tender and incredibly moving.
(Educating Rita continues the tour throughout July in Inverness, Wolverhampton, Wakefield and Sheffield.)