Educating Rita – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Sandra Callard, May 2019
In theatrical terms a two-hander is one of the most difficult roles to tackle. Just two actors on stage throughout the entire performance is challenging to even the most experienced thespian, and Educating Rita is one such testing piece. Written by Liverpudlian Willy Russell at the behest of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the new play opened in 1980, and the film followed soon after, with the screenplay also being written by Russell.
This latest production of this evergreen show is touring Britain again and is produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers of Calendar Girls and The Full Monty fame. This time the two stars of the show are the distinguished actor Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and relative newcomer Jessica Johnson in the plum role of Rita. Johnson bounds onto the stage as the Liverpudlian hairdresser who has a longing to be educated and lands in the class of the fading and drunken academic, Frank. The journey that follows will shape the lives of these wildly dissimilar characters, as each face their demons and succumb to the unexpected.
“Plays it for all it is worth”
The stage setting is typical of any college tutor’s room, and the opening scene as Frank searches his library, not for his books, but behind his books for his hidden whiskey bottles, is a funny and promising start. This is the only stage set in the play, and it really needs no more as it represents everything that the story encompasses. The longing of an uneducated woman, a hairdresser, though talented in her field, who longs to understand the meaning of literary words. And the educated and literate tutor, who knows everything that Rita wishes to learn, but is too disillusioned by drink to take her seriously.
As Rita, Johnson sports a strong Liverpool accent which fades as her learning grows, and she plays it for all it is worth. Her first visit to Frank’s room after her education has started is beautifully done as she uses newly-learned words incorrectly. It is a fast and clever scene which shows her strong comedy delivery and sharp timing. Russell’s taut script is delivered perfectly, and Johnson’s remarkable self-assurance grows as her confidence solidifies. By the second act the expertise of Tompkinson seems to be a rock that leads and supports her, and towards the end she is a towering presence.
Tompkinson offers up the most wonderful drunk; by rote he is sad, clever, pathetic and lovable, as he turns in an entirely apposite and utterly compelling performance. Shades of his famous Inspector Banks never once hover, as he gives a virtuoso portrayal of Willy Russell’s disillusioned Frank who is finally given a glimmer of hope and pride in himself.
There are many theatre productions today which boast huge casts and numerous scene changes, and many are beautifully done and the numbers on stage add massively to the proceedings. Educating Rita is unique in that it is a one scene, two cast, two hour play, which, if cleverly written and cast with superlative actors, which this one absolutely is, can be a theatre-goer’s dream. I have seen two-handers before on stage, including other productions of Educating Rita, and none have achieved the stature of this production. It grows steadily in interest, assurance and skill as it moves through the story, and the final words and actions are so absolutely right that you can almost hear the satisfaction flow through the audience. It is theatre perfection.