The first time the play that would become the modern classic Educating Rita, by Willy Russell, was produced was thirty-five years ago but it would seem that a lot of the ideas raised in this persistently popular work still speak to audiences today. With strong similarities to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, it presents the story of an enthusiastic, if somewhat naïve, student and her disillusioned tutor. Rita, a Liverpudlian hairdresser, signs up for a Literature course with the Open University and is paired up with failed poet and self-acknowledged ‘appalling teacher of appalling students’, Frank. The popularity of this play is well-documented and was cemented with the 1983 film adaptation starring Michael Caine and Juliet Walters.
Upon entering the auditorium, we are met with a beautiful set, designed by Juliet Shillingford and it’s very clear why the Mercury Theatre continue to build a regular partnership with her, having worked with her frequently over the last couple of years. Her set consumes the stage, giving a fantastic amount of playing space for a single set drama. It almost resembles a pyramid of books, suggesting both Frank’s dishevelled chaos, but also the sheer vastness and wonder of the literary world Rita longs to explore. The use of a pair of well placed stools and a library ladder offer a more dynamic sense of height in what might otherwise be a less visually engaging play. Paired with David W Kidd’s lighting design, we’re given the perfect background for this exploration into the nature of self-development and the difficulties of institutional education.
From the off, Dougal Lee and Samantha Robinson, as Frank and Rita respectively, charge their characters with the nervous curiosity of a pair who can’t quite figure out the other. They have an engaging chemistry on-stage and both deliver the witty dialogue with a zest that keeps the well-known material fresh. Lee’s Frank is clearly a passionate teacher, albeit one who’s found himself slowly ground down by self-doubt and an extreme fondness for Scotch. In this, his first Colchester stage performance, Lee easily demonstrates his experience; his voice is rich, and his physicality jumps from restrained and contemplative to explosively impassioned at a moment’s notice. He draws the audience in to Frank’s love of literature with ease. Interestingly enough, Lee has previously played Higgins in both Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, but whilst this may be familiar territory, he’s able to maintain an undercurrent of wry wit that fills Frank with a solid contemporary charm.
Robinson, who you might recently have seen alongside Sheridan Smith as Jean on ITV’s Cilla, is a delight as the irrepressibly chatty hairdresser. From her entrance, she fills Rita with a nervous energy that wins over the audience in minutes. It’s difficult to see someone so passionate about something without being caught up in her enthusiasm and Robinson takes full advantage of this. Her Rita is awestruck by the wonderful library she finds in Frank’s study and Robinson does a great job of bringing the audience along with her with every leap and bound Rita makes through her education. Samantha has great comic sensibilities, as the audience would attest to between chuckles, but I feel as though she shone most in Rita’s more difficult moments, when the humour fades. In these more sensitive scenes, Samantha really brings down the defences and lets us in to see the real vulnerability of a woman struggling to find her place in the world.
Director Patrick Sandford has successfully brought this production into the modern day and really emphasises how little seems to have changed since the plays first outing in 1980. Despite over three decades passing, Rita is still as relatable as ever as an individual seeking to better herself but not quite knowing how. She claims she wants to know everything and this feels even more poignant in the modern world of smartphones and unlimited 3G. We’ve the entirety of human knowledge at the end of our fingertips and yet, even still, there often seems to be a sense of disconnect from education from students from poorer backgrounds. Leb Ebdon, director of the Office of Fair Access, said, in an article in the Guardian last year, that “Young people from the most advantaged areas are still two and a half times more likely to apply for higher education than those from areas where participation is low. This gap hinders efforts to increase social mobility and addressing it must remain a priority.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. The popularity of Russell’s play is likely down to the timelessness of the issue at its core; the thirst for but fear of knowledge.
Overall, the production still rings true, reminding us both of the longevity of Russell’s writing and of the persistence of this idea of self-improvement. It suggests that to seek to better one’s self is an obviously admirable trait but warns not to lose one’s uniqueness in this pursuit and the cast tackle this established text with admirable vigour. I would fully recommend this production to anyone, especially if you’ve ever felt as though, like Rita, you have a desire to learn about everything! Educating Rita, at the Mercury Theatre until the 14th of March, is the perfect place to start an exploration into the world of literature and throws in plenty of laughs on top.
Review by Ben Powell
By Willy Russell
Director – Patrick Sandford
Designer – Juliet Shillingford
Lighting Designer – David Kidd
Sound Designer – Adam McCready
Samantha Robinson as Rita and Dougal Lee as Frank
Thursday February 26th to Saturday March 14th 2015
Press night: Friday, February 27 – 7.30pm
This new production, celebrating the 35th anniversary of Willy Russell’s classic play, is directed by Patrick Sandford and stars Samantha Robinson and Dougal Lee. Opening on Thursday, February 26th and running until Saturday, March 14th, Educating Rita is the story of a hairdresser in search of adventure and the education she never got at school.
Thursday, February 26 – Saturday, March 14
Performance times vary
Tickets from £10 to £25
www.mercurytheatre.co.uk or call the Ticket Sales Desk on 01206 573948
Saturday 28th February 2015