Words: Josie Penfold. Photos: Robert Day.
5 Stars – an unmissable revival of a masterpiece
Willy Russell’s script tells the story of a working-class woman, Susan ‘Rita’ White, in her late twenties who enters the Open University in hope to feed her soul and change her life for the better. Her tutor, Frank, is a frustrated poet, disappointed with life and all the inadequacies it appears to provide. His only real passion lies in a bottle of hard liquor, and therefore, when the bold, excitable Rita bursts into his life, he is very much unenthusiastic. However, it soon becomes clear that it is not just Rita who can learn from Frank. He also finds there is a lot to learn from Rita, and as the play progresses, the line between the student/teacher role is blurred.
This much-loved play has been reintroduced into the modern stage by producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers and Theatre by the Lake. However, the play has not been modernised. Instead, it remains true to its roots of the 1980s – yet the hunger of its characters for something better in life is timeless.
Television star, Stephen Tompkinson, plays the role of the uninspired, alcoholic lecturer, Frank. Unsurprisingly, Tompkinson is extraordinary. His ability to switch between the authoritative, arrogant, academic to the desperate, vulnerable, drunk is encapsulating. In the words of Frank himself, life is ‘a rich and frantic whirl’, and Tompkinson is able to grapple with both the riches of academia and the frantic reality of despair in his performance. For Tompkinson, the play is
A universal story of two lost souls, mismatched people in terms of character and background who meet at the right time to help each other in life.
What was most remarkable about Tompkinson’s performance for me was the scene nearing the end of the first Act. Not only did Tompkinson project a fantastic – for lack of a better word – drunk, but the layers in which Frank’s drunken state is attempting to cover his desperation and inadequacy comes through. Anyone can act, but not everyone can create the depth of psychological pain which Tompkinson achieves.
As for Jessica Johnson, well, she is an eccentric burst of energy. From the minute she enters the stage, she steals the audiences’ attention (and Frank’s). Rita’s frantic, uneasiness is expressed through her inability to sit still for long, perching rather than sitting on her seat, bouncing across the stage with each new train of thought. Rita continually refers to education as the tool she needs to be free, yet what she does not realise, and what Johnson projects so well, is the innate free spirit that lets her speak without thinking and move so naturally in any given space. Talking from her own experience with the play, Johnson said that
It gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life.
Perhaps that is why her performance of Rita is so raw – not only is she a comic genius, but Johnson is able to capture that ambition Rita feeds off.
The power of this play comes from its simplicity. Two actors conversing about literature and life in just one room. This room is, for those who don’t know, Frank’s university office – a room which set designer, Patrick Connellan, has saturated with academia. The large bookcases topped with overfilled files, the dominant wooden desk, and a less spectacular ‘student’ desk sit as the perfect foundation for cultivating the very complex relationship between the characters. Indeed, the brazen, uneducated Rita uses the set fantastically. Initially, Director Max Roberts has Rita migrating around the room with no real place. However, as she develops, both academically and socially, she finds a firmer position in no other than Frank’s desk chair. Meanwhile, Frank distinctly descends deeper and deeper into alcohol-fuelled despair, landing ironically in the seat in front of the ‘student’ desk.
The unconventional conversations of literature and haircuts, showered with life counselling sessions encapsulates the complexities of what it is to be human – it’s all nothing, but it’s all very real and very relevant as we search for a greater outcome. Both Rita and Frank undergo life lessons, and while Rita’s is perhaps the more obvious change, her ability to reignite some passion into the hopeless Frank leaves a poignant reminder that none of us are too far away from the possibility of a better life.
Forty years on and this play is still as comic, still as painful, and still as relatable as ever.
Educating Rita is at Theatr Clwyd until 1st June before carrying on its tour across the UK. To book tickets, visit the Theatr Clwyd website or call the Box Office on 01352 701521.