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REVIEW: Educating Rita at The Everyman in Cheltenham

Educating Rita UK Tour 2021

Educating Rita
by Willy Russell
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Rating: ★★★

When I was a lad, my mum and dad had a project: Educating Paul.  My friends used to read The Beano and Whizzer & Chips; I had a subscription to Look and Learn.  My parents’ ambition was for me to go to university – preferably one with quadrangles.  In their eyes, a degree was a ticket to the world.  Education was a rope-ladder, a means of escape.

Escape is a recurring theme in Willy Russell’s plays.  In Shirley Valentine, housewife Shirley discovers her true self by escaping to Greece.  In Stags and Hens, Linda escapes through a toilet window from her own hen party.  In Educating Rita, hairdresser Sue (A.K.A. Rita) escapes her stifling existence by enrolling on a university course in English Literature, while her tutor Frank uses alcohol to escape from the knowledge of his own mediocrity.

This fortieth anniversary production of Willy Russell’s Olivier-award-winning comedy is a delight.  Under Max Roberts’ imaginative direction, the potential pitfalls of a two-hander set in a single room are skilfully swerved.  This isn’t a static, ninety-minute duologue but a dynamic, funny and truthful portrayal of a relationship where the balance of power is inexorably reversed.  At the start of the play, Rita is uneducated but hungry to learn: “I want to know everything!” she exclaims.  Under Frank’s tutelage, Rita grows in knowledge, experience and self-confidence, while Frank sinks deeper and deeper into drunken self-pity.  Educating Rita is a romantic comedy – it has some brilliant gags – but it also contains a vein of tragedy.  Frank’s love is fatally corrupted by his urge to control or, failing that, destroy Rita, who he cruelly describes as the Monster to his Frankenstein.

One might naturally expect the focus of the play to be on Rita.  However, in this production, it’s Frank who dominates.  Masterfully played by Stephen Tompkinson, Frank is a model of self-neglect.  His grey hair is long and unkempt, and he is clad from head to toe in shades of brown: a dead-ringer for Donald Sutherland in the video of Cloudbusting.  Frank trails broken relationships in his wake – he prefers the pub to home – but he’s no stereotypical lush: Tompkinson’s nuanced portrayal also gives us tantalising glimpses of Frank’s capacity for delight.

Rita’s zest for life is intoxicating, and her vivacious persona is vividly captured by Jessica Johnson.  Julie Walters’ much-loved portrayal of Rita casts a long shadow, but Johnson does not shirk the challenge: she dispels all memories of other interpretations and claims the role as her own.  It was a brave decision to keep the character a Liverpudlian: another actress might have been tempted to put clear blue water between herself and Dame Julie by using a different accent, but Johnson carries it off flawlessly.

The production is set in the early ’80s, when the play was originally written.  The dialogue includes a reference to Kim Wilde, while Rita variously wears dungarees, hairy jumpers, and white socks with black patent-leather shoes.  Willy Russell has revised and tightened his original script, dropping gags that no longer work and bringing some outdated references up to date.  Confusingly, “ratatouille” now becomes “cassoulet” – although anyone who was around in the ’80s will tell you that, back then, only Elizabeth David ate cassoulet.

Oh, and “cassoulet” isn’t as funny as “ratatouille”.  Try saying them out loud, preferably in a Liverpudlian accent.  See worra mean?

Educating Rita runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Saturday 28 August 2021. 

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
25 August 2021

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