Willy Russell’s Educating Rita has been made into the hit film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters and with other successes under his belt such as Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine, I had high hopes for this nearing forty-year-old play.
With one room, static set, just two actors and not a lot of movement both Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson had a lot to do to engage the audience for two and a half hours. They did so with ease.
Their relationship is perhaps the most fascinating part of the play. It develops and moves through different stages of closeness, romanticism and familiarity. As time progresses you see different parts of the characters that each other brings out, making Frank and Rita so believable and well rounded as characters.
Tompkinson is brilliant as the alcoholic, lonely and self-loathing lecturer Frank. His expressions as he listens to Rita are classic and extremely telling of his character. He is witty, cynical and loveable as he slowly reveals hidden elements of himself, parts that are now buried in classic literature and covered in whisky.
Johnson definitely grows on me as the performance goes on. I found her a little forced and grating to begin with, just too over the top and keen to be funny. As the production went on she calmed down from over excited puppy to mature mutt. I think the is partly due to the character aging as well as Johnson as an actress settling into the play as well.
I think it is partly because of this I found the second half more enjoyable as well as considerably more funny than the first. There is a lot of dry wit from Frank and physical comedy from Rita, the pair are chalk and cheese which allows for plenty of chuckles throughout.
Forty years on, Educating Rita still feels fresh and tight and I think that is down to a strong direction by Max Roberts, as well as a timeless story with themes that are still relevant today.