Educating Rita

Willy Russell
Theatre by The Lake
The Capitol, Horsham

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Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita Credit: Nobby Clark
Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita Credit: Nobby Clark

This 40th anniversary tour of Educating Rita was halted by the pandemic but made a comeback at the Minack Theatre in August 2020 and has played sporadically since at various theatres across the country. As we head towards the latter stages of 2021, the performance is still going strong and despite the length of tour, still felt fresh and engaging. The 90 minutes without interruptions flew by and certainly thrilled this sell-out audience at the Capitol Theatre in Horsham.

One of the risks with an anniversary tour is that the play is too dated and doesn’t hold its own in a new age, yet this has not been the case here. Despite the musical and cultural references to the '80s, this feels like a play with a timeless message of one wanting to better themselves and another feeling like their subject has outgrown them, a Pygmalion for the modern day if you like.

The masterstroke in casting is Stephen Tompkinson, who breathes new life into the role of Frank so iconically portrayed by Michael Caine in the well-known feature film. With his long grey hair, there is a certain essence of writer Willy Russell in the role, which is ironic given that Russell unknowingly wrote the play as an autobiographical ode to his own journey from hairdresser to literature. Perhaps fittingly, given the passing of time, the writer’s voice now inhabits the tutor, rather than the tutee.

Tompkinson plays the role with excellent heaviness and portrays the pain and bitterness in Frank. There is a self-loathing that is totally captured; he is at once embittered and uptight, stumbling around the set and becoming less sober as the play progresses. We really feel for Frank who (one tie and an academic gown accepted) stays in the same room in the same costume whilst Rita explores the outside world.

The relationship between Rita and Frank is portrayed with vigour by Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, who moves about the stage like an uncontained jack-in-the-box. Her physicality and inability to keep still in the early scenes is enhanced by the stillness she shows towards the end of the play. Indeed, it is Rita’s journey and Frank’s stagnation that is so starkly portrayed by director Max Roberts. As the play progresses, Johnson manages to capture Rita’s changing personality in more than just the costume changes that show her climbing out and away from the home life she hates in Formby.

For a two-hander to be successful, the rapport needs to be evident and this production does not disappoint. The developing relationship is beautifully played out, driven through with a pace that feels natural and believable. Tompkinson’s responses are terrific, with a contorted face in response to amateur dramatics and his retort to ‘Blake and Parody’ bringing genuine laughter from the audience. There is a wit in the contact between Rita and Frank, but this soon takes second place to anger and resentment, Tompkinson totally conveying Frank’s feeling of jealousy as Rita’s rise out of the singed hair ashes is paralleled with his own fall from academic grace.

The performers are supported by slick direction from director Roberts and a fantastic set design from Patrick Connellan. The backdrop of endless books creates a sense of the academic study: you can almost see the dust on the book jackets and smell the stuffiness of the tutor’s study. This is afforded another layer of symbolism as the curtain of academia falls and we are left with a vision of shelves of (empty) bottles telling the tale of Frank’s demise.

The production is further evidence of Willy Russell’s ability to write brilliantly sharp dialogue with moments of real pathos and, although some of his works can feel more suited to another era, this is not one of them. Russell’s real gift is in his ability to write characters that we can relate to but also ‘see’—we can just imagine Rita’s partner Denny and her friend Trish. However, it is the central relationship that is so moving and this is summed up in the beautifully unsentimental moment at the end which brought an audible response from the audience.

What a joy it is to be back in a theatre again, with this production of Educating Rita really reminding us all of what we’ve been missing.

Reviewer: John Johnson