Educating Rita – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Sarah Morgan, July 2019
The problem with making a hit movie version of a stage success is that every subsequent theatrical production threatens to be overshadowed by the film – or at least by its cast.
Julie Walters appeared in the original Educating Rita at the Donmar Warehouse in 1980 and played the character again on the big screen opposite Michael Caine three years later. Some major stars have appeared in stage revivals since then, including Tom Baker and Sarah Lancashire, and yet Walters continues to loom large, as does, to a certain extent, Caine.
Thankfully the 2019 touring version, which appears at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre this week, features two thespians who have a great stab at wiping those two superstars from our collective memories.
“Energetic and enthusiastic”
Stephen Tompkinson delivers one of his customary touching performances as Frank, the failed poet and alcoholic lecturer whose professional life is turned on its head by his new Open University student.
Jessica Johnson does, during the first half, seem to be attempting to channel Walters, but comes into her own in the second half as Rita, the hairdresser who wants to ‘know it all’ and hopes that Frank is the man to teach her, little realising just how jaded he is by academic life.
Rita is everything Frank isn’t – bubbly, energetic and enthusiastic. When they first meet, she’s tired of her dull marriage to husband Denny, who wants her to have babies rather than an education; she has none of Frank’s cynicism and world weariness.
But as their relationship develops, it becomes clear that Frank needs her as much as she needs him, but that in moulding her, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Playwright Willy Russell expanded the play for the film, adding numerous characters. However, this production reverts to his original script, a two-hander featuring just Frank and Rita. The dialogue is a gift for actors, and you can see that Tompkinson and Johnson are having the time of their lives.
The story all takes place in one book-laden set, where we get to witness the changing dynamic between Rita and Frank, with Tompkinson particularly impressive – while Johnson/Rita gets a breather every now and then for a quick costume change to signify the passing of time, he is never off stage.
A packed house applauded generously at the final curtain, and the cast certainly deserved their cheers. By the end, some of them were even asking, Julie who?
images: Robert Day