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Review: EDUCATING RITA, Rose Theatre

Willy Russell's iconic play shines at the Rose Theatre for its 40th anniversary

Review: EDUCATING RITA, Rose Theatre

Review: EDUCATING RITA, Rose Theatre After a curtailed tour and a sold-out run at Cornwall's Minack Theatre, Willy Russell's beautifully poignant Educating Rita now comes to the Rose Theatre for its first performances inside a theatre in a Covid-restricted world. A bittersweet and very funny production; it has been worth the wait.

Written in 1979, Russell's now-iconic play follows hairdresser Rita as she enthusiastically embarks on an Open University course. She meets her erudite but irascible tutor Frank, who is a brilliant but frustrated academic and dedicated alcoholic. Frank is less than thrilled to be teaching Rita, but her enthusiasm inspires a renewed passion in him for literature. It soon becomes clear that they both have a huge amount that they can learn from each other.

Stephen Tompkinson is very convincing as Frank; desperately trying to find some meaning in his career, love life and thwarted ambitions as a poet. Tompkinson is less gruff than others who have played the role and is nicely self-deprecating. Dishevelled and self-destructive, he is adept at giving great heart to the role of the broken-down Frank.

Jessica Johnson is a determined, focused and likeable Rita; resolute in her ambition to improve herself through education. The role is a challenging one, with quick fire monologues, delivered in rapid succession. Johnson, resplendent in a succession of wonderfully 80s outfits, lacks projection at first, but warms up quickly. She deftly manages to maintain the pace of the role, if not always the Scouse accent.

The two actors have a very convincing rapport; Johnson's Rita acts like an electric shock for Frank, who is inspired by her attitude and aptitude towards the technical aspects of language. Her thirst for knowledge is a longing for the autonomy that she knows education can bring her; she is challenging the inevitability and expectations of her life as a working-class hairdresser.

We still see clearly the knowledge that Russell garnered from his six years working as a women's hairdresser in Liverpool; Rita is a multi-dimensional character with both bravado and bravery masking insecurities. The play is probably his most autobiographical, as Russell used adult education to change his destiny, just as Rita is trying to do.

After somewhat challenging weather conditions when performing outside in Cornwall, both actors must be relieved to be back under cover. Director Max Roberts carefully retains the great humanity in both characters and gradually builds the platonic love story within the play.

Patrick Connellan's design is very evocative, with Frank's study piled high with books and whiskey bottles. It's lovely to see the play remain firmly set in the late seventies, with no attempt to pull in modernity. The production is a comfort blanket of nostalgia for a time when students could actually talk to their tutors face-to-face, rather than online.

The theme of education being a means for social movement is not new, but it is as relevant now as it was back in 1980, when this play first came to the stage. Education still costs money and social mobility is not always as easy as it is claimed. Educating Rita remains as thought-provoking, entertaining and poignant as ever.

It must be pointed out that the Rose theatre has put in place rigorous Covid protocol. Tickets are digital, thermometers and sanitiser are in place and your entrance door is also specified, as well as an entrance time to avoid any queuing. Pre-ordered drinks are left by your seat. If you are in any way wary about a return to the theatre, the Rose is a perfect venue to allay your fears.

Educating Rita is at the Rose Theatre until November 14

Photo Credit: Nobby Clark

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