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Educating Rita

Willy Russell
Library Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford

Philip Bretherton as Frank and Gillian Kearney as Rita Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Gillian Kearney as Rita Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Philip Bretherton as Frank Credit: Jonathan Keenan

For popular comedies that always seem to sell well when they do appear, it's surprising that we don't see professional revivals of Willy Russell's plays very often at all.

Educating Rita is one of Russell's best-known scripts both on stage and on film. Like most of his plays, it is, at its heart, about class—more specifically about the desire to break free from the shackles of class. Rita sees her way out of what she sees as the tedium of her working class life as education, and so she joins an Open University course on English literature.

Her tutor is Frank, an experienced but jaded lecturer who hides his bottles of whisky behind the works of specific authors on his shelves. This 29-year-old student who has never taken an exam in her life fascinates Frank as a person, but at the same time frustrates him as a student, and they form a very close bond.

Rita's desire to "improve" herself is amusing to Frank—who already has everything that she desires but does not value it—but her friends and family see it as a betrayal, as they proudly defend a lifestyle that she describes as being without any culture or any desire to look for something better. After a period during which she feels she doesn't fit in with the educated people she looks up to and feels like an outsider at home, she eventually finds her confidence—until we end with a bit of a role reversal between teacher and student.

The play is lively and witty throughout and debates some very interesting issues about class and education, only occasionally slipping into political speeches. Chris Honer's production manages to bring out all of the debates at the heart of the piece while hitting all of the humorous notes at the right pitch. The only thing that brings down the pace is some rather long scene changes; at times the play becomes quite episodic with sequences of short scenes, and some of the scene changes are almost as long as some of the scenes.

Philip Bretherton's Frank at times gets the character just about spot on, but it isn't a consistent portrayal yet, with some less believable moments and a disturbing habit of staring pointedly at his co-star sometimes when she is talking. However Gillian Kearney is absolutely spot on at all times with a Rita that isn't as loud and coarse initially as she is sometimes played but she makes it work and is completely believable and compelling at all times.

Willy Russell's twist on Pygmalion still works as well as it ever did on stage, as this worthwhile and entertaining production shows, so surely the time is ripe for some more revivals from the Russell canon other than the slightly tired touring production of Blood Brothers.

Reviewer: David Chadderton