My only prior experience of Educating Rita was the motion picture starring Michael Caine, Julie Walters and Maureen Lipman, and a raft of supporting characters. The stage version which preceded the film is a two-hander, reason enough to put thoughts on the film to one side and approach this most famous story, which invites comparisons with George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with an open mind. In this production, however, the punchlines land with titters rather than belly laughs, which is frankly a bit of a let-down given the strength of Willy Russell’s script. Whilst it is a solidly faithful rendering of the text – a straight revival – a disproportionate amount of effort went into the show’s soundtrack, snippets of various chart music songs from the 1970s, which ultimately didn’t add much to the evening’s proceedings.
In terms of staging, the decision to extend the stage out considerably further into the auditorium than would normally be the case was a helpful one, in providing a more homely atmosphere than a traditional proscenium arch setting would have given. The costumes, particularly those of Rita (Danielle Flett), are well-designed, and almost scream ‘character development’ as the story goes on. It was a clever device to bring some variation into a play set entirely in one room, with anything and everything that takes place elsewhere merely described, filtered through whichever slant Rita or her tutor, Frank (Ruairi Conaghan) may wish to place on events.
As a feature-length article in the show’s programme goes to some lengths to explain, Rita’s decision to embark on an Open University course back in 1980, when the play is set, may not have been made now by someone in a similar position. The rise and rise of university fees to £9,000 per year (at the time of writing) for a ‘traditional’ course is a considerable amount of money, out of the question for many. I couldn’t resist looking up Rita’s chosen course in English Literature and its fee structure. The Open University admits that at current prices, the total cost would be £17,184, plus extras for books and study materials. It is important, then, for the play to stay rooted to the early 1980s if the storyline is to remain credible.
Naturally, for a play set in an academic’s office, the dialogue gets quite highbrow. I didn’t get all of the literary references, though this is not because the playwright wishes to show his own intellect off, but because of the two-way traffic. For instance, there is literature that Rita has read before that Frank wasn’t aware of previously, and vice versa. Some of the metaphors in the play holler unnecessarily loudly: early on Rita physically, and thus figuratively, struggles to get through the door. Later, Frank’s office light starts flickering as the beginning of the end of this chapter of his working life gets underway. And so on.
Diction, I’m sorry to report, could have been clearer, and the comic timing needs some improvement. For example, if the audience is to laugh at the line, “I am not a Dalek,” some effort to sound broadly monotone wouldn’t have gone amiss. It remains, at the end of the day, a lovely play that continues to ask questions about class and culture. I found myself more sympathetic to Conaghan’s Frank than I thought I would, but even so, this production could have been infinitely more emotive. A serviceable production, it remains, just about, an inspiring tale of triumph over adversity.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch production
Willy Russell’s timeless and inspirational comedy.
Whisky-loving Open University professor Frank Bryant is expected to teach when the pubs are open – much to his disgust. So when gobby hairdresser Rita bursts into his book lined study insisting that Frank becomes her assigned tutor, he grudgingly accepts the challenge. Rita may think Yeats is a wine lodge but she also believes that literature could offer her a way out of the rut she’s in.
Slowly, Frank realises that this enthusiastic working-class student has much to teach him too – making him question his work and his very being in the process. This iconic, hilarious and touching play won an Olivier Award in 1980 and remains as brilliant and relevant as ever. Rita’s personal and academic evolution is a joy to witness, with a resolution as unexpected as it is full of promise.
Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita ran for over two years in the West End and won the Society of West End Theatres award for Best Comedy. It subsequently became a BAFTA award-winning film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.
Director Rosalind Philips
Designer Polly Sullivan
Lighting Designer Sally Ferguson
Sound Designer Ben Collins
Ruairi Conaghan – Frank
Danielle Flett – Rita
Age guidance 12+
Contains some strong language
Running Time – 120 minutes
Interval – 20 minutes
22nd April to 13th may 2017