It’s a little known fact that when the film rights to Educating Rita were sold, the initial idea was for the two central roles to be played by Dolly Parton and Paul Newman. It’s a pity this never came to fruition, but we did of course still get a fine film version of Willy Russell’s play, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. The film came a couple of years after the incredible success of the stage play in both London and Liverpool, where over 40,000 people saw 1981’s Liverpool Playhouse production.
Now it’s back at the Playhouse, directed by Gemma Bodinetz and starring Leanne Best as feisty Rita and Con O’Neill as world weary Frank. As you may recall, Rita’s a working class hairdresser taking an Open University course in English Literature, while Frank’s her bored, cynical tutor. Rita envies Frank’s world of books and culture, while Frank admires Rita’s raw, unschooled intelligence and wishes he still had her ‘hungry mind’. Under Frank’s guidance Rita takes to learning like a duck to water, but inevitably becomes less reliant on him and, in his eyes, too enamoured of aspects of academia he’s grown used to mocking.
The play (unlike the film) only has the two characters, but Leanne Best and Con O’Neill are eminently up to the challenge, and both give outstanding performances. Leanne Best is initially both sparky and self-deprecating, before subtly modifying her performance to reflect Rita’s increasingly confident journey towards a different kind of life. It’s appropriate that Rita’s played by a local actress because she embodies what we like to think are the best aspects of the Liverpool character: warm, humorous, refreshingly honest and direct. Con O’Neill captures well Frank’s acerbic gloom, but also shows how Rita begins to re-light a fire in him that’s long been extinguished. It’s a generous performance, one that allows Best’s vibrant onstage presence to command the audience’s attention for much of the play.
Educating Rita has serious things to say about class, education and relationships, but it’s also of course very funny, and Best and O’Neill’s timing and delivery ensure the jokes go down as well as they did over thirty years ago. Quite a few of the audience had no doubt heard it before, but Rita’s suggestion that the best way to resolve the ‘staging difficulties’ in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt would be to ‘do it on the radio’ still gets a big laugh.
All of the action takes place in Frank’s office and Conor Murphy‘s impressive set, which surrounds the characters with towering shelves of books, effectively suggests both a world of literature that Rita’s eager to explore and a place that’s become an oppressive prison to Frank (even if the books are handy for concealing his many bottles of whisky). Above the shelves is a screen used to show pulsating images redolent of a period when Margaret Thatcher had recently come to power and the country was riven by industrial strife. The records we hear as we take our seats before the play starts similarly summon up the era while also connecting to the play’s themes: ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ (Frank would no doubt agree), Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ (Rita feels liberated by education but Frank fears she may be succumbing to another kind of ‘thought control’).
There’s a moment late in the first Act when Frank explains to Rita that Macbeth is a tragedy because the hero’s fate is inevitable – he becomes set on a course that hurtles him unstoppably towards his doom. He could be talking about their relationship: for Rita to blossom she has to grow apart from Frank, and movingly it’s a separation that matters more to him than it does to her. The driving cello chords that punctuate the scenes reinforce the sense that the play’s moving relentlessly to an inescapable conclusion.
This element of predictability about the development of the storyline may explain why the first half of the play is perhaps stronger than the second, though it’s also the case that as Frank increasingly withdraws into sullen resentment of Rita’s growing independence he becomes rather less interesting as a character. But the rapid succession of scenes means we’re never bored, while the comedy ensures we’re always entertained. And all the recent talk about social and economic inequality – not to mention the claim that actors from privileged backgrounds are dominating the stage and screen while working class talent goes untapped – gives the play a timeliness that couldn’t have been anticipated a few months ago. Educating Rita remains a fine play, deserving of the top-notch production it gets here. On the night we went there was enthusiastic applause for every scene and at the end everyone jumped spontaneously to their feet for a rousing standing ovation. It will surely be packing them in over the next few weeks.
Photos ©Stephen Vaughan
Educating Rita continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until 7 March. For more information, click HERE.