Theatre Review: EDUCATING RITA – The Lowry, Salford

Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson in EDUCATING RITA

Drawing on every emotion to produce a profoundly moving yet hilarious two-hander, EDUCATING RITA feels as fresh, vibrant and relevant today as it did nearly 40 years ago

4 out of 5 stars

It’s fair to say that Willy Russell has a knack for creating human stories. From BLOOD BROTHERS and SHIRLEY VALENTINE to OUR DAY OUT and STAGS AND HENS, his plays just seem to strike a chord no matter what their age, as David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers and Theatre by the Lake’s latest touring version of EDUCATING RITA deftly demonstrates.

Set in the early 1980s, EDUCATING RITA tells the story of married hairdresser Rita who enrols on an Open University course to expand her horizons. Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker who is less than enthusiastic about taking Rita, but it soon becomes clear that the two have much to teach each other.

EDUCATING RITA UK Tour

Those familiar with EDUCATING RITA will know that much of its power is in its subtlety. Director Max Roberts skilfully takes his time here, making the most of Patrick Connelan’s exquisitely detailed set which oozes academia thanks to its rustic bookshelves, mahogany desk and mid-16th-century style windows. The action doesn’t leave the office so all of our attention is placed solely on the characters and the development of their relationship.

Jessica Johnson delivers a punchy and energetic performance as Rita, the gobby and opinionated hairdresser who turns to education to discover herself and better her circumstances. While her character’s exuberance in the early scenes feels more comic than fully-rounded, Johnson’s performance gets stronger as the play progresses, becoming increasingly moving, sharper and engaging, without losing any of the character’s enlivening wit.

EDUCATING RITA

Stephen Tompkinson is equally engaging as self-pitying alcoholic tutor Frank, his nuanced performance showing the vulnerability and heart of this otherwise arrogant and self-important character. Together, the pair are a joy to watch on stage, bouncing off each other effortlessly as they whip through Russell’s witty script with spot-on comic timing.

Yet, while there is a lot of humour in the writing, EDUCATING RITA touches on some serious themes, its social commentary class, culture and choice feeling as relevant today as it did almost 40 years ago. Here, Roberts’ revival feels fresh, new and vibrant, drawing on every emotion to produce a profoundly moving yet hilarious two-hander which is tremendously uplifting and quietly thought-provoking.

EDUCATING RITA runs at The Lowry, Salford until 4 May 2019.