Reviewed by Jenny Bray
This show is performed purely by two individuals, Frank (Stephen Tompkinson) and Rita (Jessica Johnson). Combine that with just one stage setting and it takes some great dialogue and interaction to keep this performance entertaining and engaging.
The stage is permanently set as Frank’s University office, shelves adorned with books, a traditional desk and chair, filing cabinet and folders of work with a wired telephone handset and a typewriter at times. If it had come with a smell I would have guessed that smell would have been fusty. It was quite refreshing to see a stage set that included proper objects such as a sturdy desk, rather than just flimsy props that get moved on and off stage on a regular basis.
I have never seen the film version of this, which Julie Walters and Michael Caine were in, that was made in 1983. Willy Russell’s show predates the film as it was first released in 1980. I was interested to read that Willy Russell’s background was that he was originally a hairdresser before studying English Literature O level at night school and then going on to take other O levels and then progressing his studies and becoming a teacher prior to a writer.
Jessica Johnson was effervescent and convincing in her role of Rita as much as Stephen Tompkinson was of downtrodden, slightly forlorn and often drunk Frank. Their ongoing relationship is cleverly performed, cutting through their class differences to find commonality, including their different vulnerabilities that ultimately unite them yet keep them worlds apart.
The plot centres around Rita; an uneducated, working class married woman in her 20s from Liverpool who is working as a hairdresser but wants an education. When she was in school she felt like she should go along with everyone else there and pretend to favour music, booze and boys over studying. She feels that something is missing and signs up to an English Literature course through the Open University to gain the education she is seeking. This is when she encounters Frank, an aging and drunk lecturer who she has been assigned to for her course. She bursts enthusiastically into Frank’s office for each of their sessions while he mopes around his office drinking although obviously also charmed by her.
Rita’s husband thinks they’ve been trying for a baby for 2 years and doesn’t know that she is still on the pill as she doesn’t want to get tied down with a baby. He disproves of her wanting to study so she has to write her essays while at work at the hairdressers. When she starts the course her idea of good books are Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown and Jackie Collins novels. Frank educates her on the likes of E.M Forster, Blake and Chekhov. She is also introduced to Yates, to which she initially thinks Frank is referring to the wine bar chain. She has a real passion for learning which Frank is impressed by and says most of his students lack.
Frank is disillusioned with everything since his wife left him. He has set up home with an ex-student but prefers to drink whiskey from various concealed places on the bookshelves in his office and head to the pub after work. He used to write poetry himself but stopped and doesn’t appreciate his education and background.
Although the stage setting is purely of his office there are many aspects of the story that go on elsewhere and then get portrayed or relived through discussion in the office. These include Rita’s marriage breakdown, her revelation around a theatre trip that she rushes to tell Frank about while in the middle of bleaching a client’s highlights then latterly of discussions she is able to hold with her flat mate Trish and also with other students enrolled on degree courses there once she gains the confidence to speak to them about literature.
Rita has many outfit changes throughout the show. She starts off in typical 80s working class wear including a leopard print top and various patterned jumpers. Later on, she moves to trendier dungarees and a headband.
The show is on at the Lyceum theatre in the centre of Sheffield, which is well signposted and fairly easy to get to. If you head to the Charles Street Q parks you get the first hour free if you get a ticket from a member of the theatre staff. The box office is by the main entrance doors and there are bars on the ground and first floors and a kiosk on the ground floor selling sweets and soft drinks. You can pre-order drinks and they come around with ice creams for sale in the interval.
The Open University has come on somewhat since this play was written, as has what University lecturers can get away with. However, the story remains relevant and is a different piece of theatre to attend than your usual storylines.
Tickets cost from £15 (booking fees may apply).
Educating Rita is at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield from 22-27 July 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call the box office on 0114 249 6000.
Lyceum Theatre, Norfolk St, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S1 1DA | 0114 249 6000