Educating Rita

Willie Russell
Derby Playhouse
(2003)

A new era has begun in Derby, with Mark Clements departing after a decade for greener pastures in London and the United States, his replacements being chief executive Karen Hebden and creative producer Stephen Edwards.

They've played safe with their first offering, Hebden herself directing Willy Russell's observant comedy about a woman's quest to better herself and find literature.

Steven Richardson's revolving set gives a wonderful first impression, with university lecturer Frank's study bursting at the seams with classics while huge portraits of eight of the world's greatest writers hang from the ceiling.

Maxine Fone reprises the role of Rita which she first played at the Pavilion Theatre, Dublin. Surprisingly she seemed lacking in confidence in the first scenes, slowly slipping into the part although by the end you had few doubts about her suitability as the 26-year-old whose life is dramatically changed when she enters the world of drama.

Russell decided the play should be set in the north of England, not necessarily Liverpool. Hebden opted for Merseyside and Fone was comfortable as a Liverpudlian most of the time, although there were occasions when she had to force the words out and the accent slipped.

Perhaps she ought to have been more brassy in the earlier scenes before her transformation into the literary intellectual. But Fone is largely enchanting, bubbly and likeable as Rita proves you can take the girl out of Liverpool but you can't take Liverpool out of the girl.

On the other hand, the choice of Christopher Ravenscroft as Frank is mystifying. Ravenscroft admits he's never seen Michael Caine's portrayal in the film - not a bad thing in itself but Ravenscroft's performance means you are always comparing him with Caine whereas Fone banishes memories of the way Julie Walters played Rita.

Frank is supposed to be an irascible, melancholic, dishevelled, washed-up tutor who slips back into alcoholism as the play wears on. But Ravenscroft is too tidy, too well-groomed and looks more like a top-ranking council officer than a lazy lecturer.

He's the same virtually all the way through the play, never differentiating between the Frank who had given up the booze and the Frank who became ever-reliant on the whisky carefully hidden on the bookshelves. The scene in which Frank turns up drunk to lecture Rita was almost slapstick; Ravenscroft was unconvincing, adding to the feeling that he was miscast.

No doubt Derby Playhouse will be displaying the "house full" signs during Educating Rita's four-week run. It's a no-risk, relatively inexpensive production for a theatre which is endeavouring to address serious financial problems. But it left me with a feeling that it was merely an average start by the new regime instead of the stunning presentation I was expecting.

Educating Rita runs until 1st March.

Steve Orme