Production revives Willy Russell's sharp and funny 80s drama
PLAYWRIGHT Willy Russell has created two of the most famous feisty female stage heroines of the late 20th century in Shirley Valentine and the knowledge-hungry hairdresser at the heart of Educating Rita.
Though written and turned into a film in the 1980s, the story at the heart of the play – which opened at Eden Court on Tuesday – has not really been altered very much by the decades nor the changes to our society that have piled past in between.
And with Jessica Johnson nailing the restless curiosity and hunger to better herself that powers Rita’s journey through the Open University system, it’s a universal story that still strikes chords in a world that has supposedly become less class-conscious.
Of course Rita is just half of the story in this clever two-hander that lets us watch two transformations, as world-weary lecturer Frank looks set to find his mojo and his love for poetry, thanks to his bracing encounter with life-affirming Rita.
The story focuses on the twentysomething hairdresser, eager to learn English literature by studying with the Open University. But her professor Frank (Stephen Tompkinson) is struggling with alcoholism and a sense that he has little to offer her – or life.
Johnson’s fizzing energy, fading naivety and growing confidence is a perfect foil to Tompkinson’s generosity as the charmed Frank who begins to feel he has created a monster and snuffed out the individuality and raw energy he found initially in Rita. The two actors are skilfully balanced and their performances allow you to see the changes "from the inside" superbly acted out in front of you. MC