Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Chris Honer
Reviewer: Iain Sykes
Educating Rita, Willy Russell’s comedy about the transforming power of education enjoys a well deserved revival as the opening show of Library Theatre’s new season at The Lowry. Probably more familiar in its 1983 film version with Michael Caine and Julie Walters, this production strips the play back to its roots as a two hander with the minor characters vividly brought to life in the third party by the play’s two characters.
The play’s one set, the office of alcoholic lecturer Frank, is a joy to behold. Stacked high and low with books, hiding places for bottles of whisky, beaten up leather furniture and desks piled high with papers, it conjures up the very essence of Frank’s existence. Judith Croft’s design draws the audience into the play even before the first character sets foot onto her creation.
The two actors, Philip Bretherton as Frank and Gillian Kearney as Rita work perfectly together as the jaded teacher and the wide eyed student. Bretherton producing in turn Frank’s irascible drunken side and his wonder at the breath of fresh air the Open University student before him brings into his office with her joyful appreciation of books at odds with the academic appreciation that he has to drink his days away to teach.
As for Rita, Russell’s wonderful, full of life, Liverpool hairdresser yearning to break free from her dull estate life and her ambitionless partner through education, she has found a near perfect portrayal in the sparkling character as played by Gillian Kearney. Her transformation from innocent to educated is made all the more special in the hands of such a fine actor.
Chris Honer’s direction ensures the play continues along its crisp, sharp route throughout and that every ounce of humour and pathos is squeezed out of Russell’s deliciously thought out script in a production that never loses its pace. It’s impossible to be distracted away from the stage for a single second even when the action consists of two people sitting quietly working at separate desks for several minutes. Such is the magnetism of the characters and the performers in this play.
Willy Russell’s plays rarely seem to see the professional light of day these days. Having seen this production of Educating Rita, one does wonder why that would be. Set in the early eighties with scene changes accompanied by music of that era, this is still a play that has as much resonance today as it did over thirty years ago, especially when brought to life in such a great fashion by the whole team assembled by Library Theatre.