Educating Rita, Willy Russell’s two-hander about class, change and social mobility, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year by becoming the play-de-jour.
Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre has just staged the comedy and Chichester’s Festival Theatre plans a summer production starring Lenny Henry.
On Friday night it was the turn of Colchester’s Mercury Theatre to open its version starring Dougal Lee and Samantha Robinson (Cilla, Shameless, Casualty).
There are, Tom Stoppard will be pleased to learn, a lot of literary references throughout and all were appreciated by the audience.
At one point Lee’s disillusioned uni tutor, Frank, is appalled at creating a Frankenstein in educating former hairdresser Rita, nee Susan White.
But this owes far more Shaw’s Pygmalion. Instead of teaching working class Rita the finer points of Received Pronunciation our reluctant academic helps his Open University student to find intellectual freedom.
However, in doing so, the now erudite and well read Liver Bird, becomes a fish out of water. She’s uncomfortable with the family and friends she grew up with and not really at home with her new peers.
There’s a certain biographical element to Rita in that Willy Russell himself trained as a hairdresser before discovering a new life through learning and writing.
Rita, whose husband and social status expects her to sprog rapidly and be content with a Friday night’s karaoke down the pub, is determined to find a better life.
“I want to find myself!” she announces after virtually falling into Frank’s book-lined office at the local university.
Rita is unashamedly working class. She has a strong Liverpudlian accent, and is honest, frank (with a small F), with a cheap, unrefined taste in clothes, wine and books.
But she wants something better for herself and enrols in an OU course. Frank, a failed poet, alcoholic, and disappointed tutor, doesn’t want to waste drinking time on Rita but, through sheer perseverance she forces him to not only teach her but to reassess his own life.
Robinson does a fine job of capturing Rita’s earthy charm although a lot of that comes from the character hailing from Liverpool.
The Scouse accent and the forthright manner of the city’s inhabitants, are vital to the plot. I can’t imagine that the blue-collar comedy would work nearly as well if Russell had his heroine emanating from working class Bournemouth.
Dougal Lee seems less confident in the skin of Frank. He fails to find any depth in the character and his moments of insobriety or outbursts of cynicism are clumsy and unconvincing.
But it is hard not to fall in love with the overall feel of the piece. You end up rooting for Rita and hoping that her new-found insight into literature doesn’t spoil her natural appeal.
Rita is a very engaging and compelling story and you may even find it educational. I discovered the difference between tragedy and tragic – something more than a few journalists should learn before writing about another “tragedy on the roads”.
Educating Rita runs at Mercury Theatre until March 14.