Educating Rita follows the intellectual journey of hairdresser Rita (or Susan) whose passion for English Literature, for knowledge and for a chance to better herself brings her to the unoiled and unyielding office door of professor Frank. Frank, a tormented poet and willing alcoholic whose love for drink often lands him in trouble with the academic authorities, supposes that he has little time for Rita, an Open University student whose lessons are only conducted to supplement his alcohol expenditure.
Just as the door to Frank’s office is near impossible to open, Frank himself is similarly unwilling to admit into his world of scholarly debate and traditional criticism a woman as brash and blunt as Rita. There is no doubt that Rita, a whirlwind of gaudy jumpers, high heels and leg warmers, is different to every other student Frank has begrudgingly tutored before. Yet it soon appears that Rita’s presence has a serious impact on the way Frank values literature and his own teaching, and how education, under pressure of impending examinations, can subsume individuality – which the refreshing Rita has in abundance.
Matthew Kelly gives a solid and committed performance as Frank, his portrayal of the often inebriated professor is well executed as he swings through states of subdued, melancholic thought to irate, persistent lecturing. Kelly plays the role with an individuality which the softer and more intimate scenes require. Claire Sweeny’s Rita is colourful and comic; her ability to deliver Rita’s lines with genuine and unabashed honesty makes the character instantly likeable and instantly relatable. Undoubtedly, in a two-player performance such as Educating Rita, the chemistry between actors should sustain the play and audience. Kelly and Sweeny are a successful double-act, having worked together previously in Legally Blonde, a musical which at times readdresses the suppositions explored in Russell’s comedy.
Alongside the comedy, Willy Russell’s portrayal of Rita offers much comment upon the plight of the working class woman. Rita’s domestic life often intrudes upon the academic sessions, her tales as a hairdresser, as a pub-widow and as a disappointing daughter. Indeed, as Rita abandons her job and lifestyle for one perceived as classier and more ‘educated’ she loses much of the colour which once made her character so fascinating. Although no longer concerned with the hum-drum monotony of every day life, Rita fails to realise that much of the literature she idolises explores just that. Blinded by the fashionable perceptions of literature as an unattainable and ambiguous art form, Rita sometimes overlooks or mistakes its purpose. A poignant scene involving the literary criticism of some of Frank’s own poems leaves a lasting mark upon the progression of Rita’s critical mind, confronting the dilemma between discovering literary excellence in a work and falsely bestowing it upon anything which faintly resembles the avant-garde.
The set takes shape as Frank’s office and books tower over Frank and Rita in cases which stretch far up the walls. The rest is a mix of the traditional and the cliché: leather clad armchairs, gabled windows and a significant array of Frank’s jumpers sprawled over furniture. It is a homely and intimate space which provides an effective arena for the many show-downs both professional and personal which occur throughout the play. The result is an enjoyable, entertaining performance – well acted and directed. Educating Rita remains sharply relevant, funny and accessible.
Educating Rita is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 30 June before continuing on tour. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre website.