Educating Rita At The SJT
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Two-handers can be difficult to sustain – or endure! If that were the rule, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita would be very much the exception, especially in a production as compelling as this, Sarah Punchon’s auspicious debut as artistic director of the New Vic.
Lauryn Redding, a native of York, is a rising star if ever there were one. She looks like she might have been born to play Rita, the Liverpudlian hairdresser who signs up with the Open University to do an Eng Lit course. She inhabits her, veritably defines her for anybody seeing the play for the first time. She captures, quite beautifully, all of Rita’s perky timidity, exposes the vulnerability behind the brazen exterior, appropriates all the mannerisms of class and education of one battling against the odds to raise herself, expand her mind, find fulfilment. The Scouse accent is a tour de force.
Andrew Pollard is no less persuasive as Frank, putting a face to, striking the very postures of, the whisky-bibbing university lecturer, who resembles one of those parsons who no longer believes and is going through the motions – until Rita breezes into his stuffy old study to fascinate him, discompose him, blow away the cobwebs. He no longer writes poetry, is appalled by the prospect of going to the theatre and is rigidly conservative in what he chooses to teach – if ‘teach’ is the right word for what went on in those rambling tutorials where students read out their essays and were put straight about Aristotelian definitions of tragedy. This practice, one should perhaps add, was not that of the Open University but of the sort of august academic institution that Frank represents and to which – with a degree of dramatic licence – Rita has been seconded.
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In fact, the two are made for each other. Rita imparts to Frank almost as much as he teaches her while taking her on a journey of discovery. From her he learns, not least, about the limitations and inherent contradictions of what he stands for and represents. She learns from him, above all, to think for herself. Their new-found knowledge comes at a cost to their personal lives which gives the play, in many ways a rip-roaring comedy, its unusual poignancy and tenderness.
Done in the round, the greatest accolade that can be bestowed is that most of the time we forget we are watching actors speaking the scripts they have learned. These two convince us they are not so much acting as being themselves. Willy Russell’s dialogue still sparkles even though he wrote it going on for forty years ago. The play is very much of its time, or earlier, however, belonging to the day when most university departments had at least one old soak hanging in there. Back then it was possible for the working class to study with the O.U. These days, it is virtually impossible since the cost of a degree is about as much as a top of the range Hyundai. In any case, personal tutorials have been replaced by closely monitored video-conferencing and twitter feeds, and the sort of horizon-expanding relationship that our two protagonists enjoy would, alas and alack, be quite impossible.
These days Willy Russell, himself once a Liverpool hairdresser, would probably not have been able to return to education as he did, as a mature student, which enabled him to write the play that so royally entertains us.
Educating Rita, a co-production of The Dukes, Lancaster, and The New Vic, Newcastle-Under-Lyme, is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough from the 9th to the 12th May.
Educating Rita At The SJT, 10th May 2018, 13:47 PM