WILLY Russell truly is a national treasure as a playwright – bringing a smile to many a lip and a tear to many an eye over nigh on half century of writing works of genius.
Unbelievably it’s 40 years since Russell’s ‘Educating Rita’ premiered at The Warehouse in London, soon followed by the iconic film version starring, of course, Michael Caine and Julie Walters. I refer to this because you’d think that by now the story would be creaking at the seams and may perhaps need a bit of updating?
Not a bit of it, this comedic duologue about a working class hairdresser and a university don is as relevant today as the day it first breathed theatrical life.
The learner is on a voyage of discovery and the teacher a road to destruction; one accomplishes their mission and the other finds a sort of solace.
Director Max Roberts’ has chosen not to try updating it – it’s still set in the 1980s – and works all the better for it. What he has done is to bring a freshness through lightness in realising his vision.
Frank is played by Stephen Tompkinson of DCI Banks fame, the somewhat dour, loner cop, but he firmly parks that role at the stage door and gives us instead an extremely lovable drunk. Frank is not at war with the world nor is he at peace with it, trapped in a loveless marriage where he’d rather go the pub than home to his supper and cocooned in an institutionalised job – one where he would have to commit mass murder to get the sack. He has been told ‘not too be a visible lush’ and he complies by secreting his stash of whisky bottles behind various classics in his library-come-office.
Patrick Connellan’s set of wall-to-wall books, worn leather chairs and crying out ‘dust’ is just how you’d imagine it to be, a comfortable hideaway from the real world.
Tompkinson is an actor unfazed by stepping into the hallowed Caine shoes and truly makes the part his own – I’m not saying I preferred it but I most definitely enjoyed and applaud it.
Jessica Johnson as Rita has if anything a more difficult pair of stilettos to fill.
Rita is by the pen of Russell, broad Liverpool, firmly at the common end of the accent and this grates. Despite her verve, humour and general exuberance from the moment she bounces into Frank’s office like Zebedee I didn’t instantly warm to her, but JJ persisted and so did I and come the final curtain I loved her.
She also had a magnificent wardrobe getting more colourful as Rita becomes more confident and the smile that I found initially irritating had my own lips finally smiling along with her.
Tompkinson and Johnson sound like an old established partnership like say Fortnum and Mason? – They certainly meld well together to give us a perfect duo.
This touring production is by the fast becoming legendary ‘Theatre by the Lake’ who’s permanent home is in Keswick. This show apart from being quite splendid is an excellent advertisement for theatre lovers to travel up the Lakes and check out the motherland. Count me in for that!
Whilst Rita gets educated we get truly entertained – catch it if you can,
Educating Rita runs at Malvern Theatres until Saturday.
Click here for times, tickets and more information.