‘Educating Rita’, a play by beloved playwright Willy Russell, found its way to Lancaster through a collaboration between The Dukes and the New Vic, and was directed by Sarah Punshon, the Artistic Director at The Dukes. Set in the 1980s, Frank, a tired and jaded university lecturer, is assigned as an Open University tutor for Rita, a curious woman who desires more from life than hairdressing and nights at the pub, and so asks to be taught ‘everything.’ It is a story of what is valued within education and the value education has for different people.
Russell is probably best known for the GCSE English classic, ‘Blood Brothers’, and the Olivier, Tony, and Oscar-nominated play and subsequent film, ‘Shirley Valentine.’ ‘Educating Rita’ itself won an Olivier, and the film adaptation starred Julie Walters and Michael Caine. In typical Russell form, the play is expressly political – and he noted that ‘Educating Rita’ was “political with a small p” – and despite being written in the 80s, many of the issues seem very current. The questions raised about class and privilege in and around academia feel very pertinent taken in context of the USS pension strikes and the marketization of higher education. Punshon has a clear awareness of the context she is directing in, as her introductory note mentions that today, Rita would need to spend more than £17,000 on her fees, and queries whether that would be a risk she would feel comfortable taking.
Having only two actors in a play is a big task to take on, but Andrew Pollard and Lauryn Redding were certainly up to the job. Their comedic chemistry was wonderful, and necessary to carry the play, but the highlights lay in the more serious moments: Rita’s speech about finally having choices in her life moved me to tears, and Frank’s despair at feeling no longer needed was painful in the best way. After playfulness and conflict in plentiful doses, the play ended on a somewhat anticlimactic moment – Rita giving Frank a haircut before his departure – but its softness tied the play together nicely.
The set was beautiful; unsurprisingly for a theatre called The Round, the stage was in the round, accented by revolving drinks cabinets filled with books. Pieces of paper, some typed, some handwritten, were stacked and strewn around the edge of the stage, and the focal point of the set, the office desk, was accompanied by enough chairs for the action to be easily accessible from every angle of the audience. As desks are so often a marker of where power and privilege lie, performing the show in the round challenged this, both from an audience perspective, and as it allowed Rita and Frank to move around it more equally. Strikingly, the lights only fully went down at the end of each act; between scenes they dimmed, but Frank could still be seen pottering around his office, waiting for Rita to re-enter his life, and this added to the immersion into the performance.
In one of Rita’s first meetings, Frank criticises her essays for being an emotional response to literature, rather than ‘objective’ criticism, and one of the most wonderful developments in the play is Frank seeing the value in Rita’s perspectives, and consequently that personal reactions to art are not worth less than something traditionally academic. And so in that line of thinking, I think my opinion of the performance can be justifiably summed up by the fact I cried three times in the first act alone, and felt like my heart was going to burst. It was joyful, heart-breaking, and inspiring.
Educating Rita is being performed at The Dukes until Saturday 14th April.