Having originally taken to the stage in 1980, this fabulous Willy Russell comedy maintains its charm forty years on thanks to the winning pairing of Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson.
Rita (Johnson) is a working class woman feeling boxed in by expectations of who she should be within her marriage and how she should behave everywhere else. Seeking betterment, she finds herself in the office of Frank (Tompkinson) – an unorthodox professor with a library full of booze and a filing cabinet full of failed poetry. In short: plebeian live-wire meets disillusioned brainiac, and it’s in this mis-match that Russell’s play finds its best material.
There’s empowerment to be found, and lessons to be learned on both sides; their lives may be very different, but in failing to live up to who they are expected to be within their respective circles, there’s a connection which inevitably changes them both. Don’t go expecting romance though – Russell’s play looks at the role of platonic connection and it’s interesting to see how the dynamics shift over time. It’s also interesting to watch such class and culture clashes in 2021… how much has really changed?
Flashes of pathos are evenly shared between the characters, but it’s inevitably with Rita that most of the best quips lie – the fountain of literary ignorance early on is plentiful and while we are never positioned to judge Rita, we are always in on the joke when it comes to taking aim at high brow pomp. Johnson’s Rita is a witty rough diamond and although the accent wanders, the comic timing and sense of spontaneity emanating from the character is fabulous. Meanwhile, Frank may well be a ‘type’, but Tompkinson’s take on the out-of-touch professor finds the warmth and heart of the character without ever sacrificing on the humour – from the opening moments of find-the-loot, he offers a charismatic presence which never wavers.
Verdict? Under the direction of Max Roberts and equipped with Russell’s sparky writing, this combination of leads makes for a pretty wonderful production.
Educating Rita plays York Theatre Royal until September 4th, 2021 and you can find tickets here.