REVIEW: Educating Rita @ Devonshire Park Theatre

February 18, 2020

Educating Rita

Devonshire Park Theatre

by Willy Russel

I’d seen the play in the 90’s and loved it, the film is an acknowledged classic of British Cinema. If you don’t know the plot, it followes working class Liverpudlian and married hairdresser Rita enrolling on an Open University course led by lecturer Frank to expand her horizons, little realising where the journey will take her.

Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker, who’s less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on, but the two soon realise how much they have to teach each other.

This stage version toured in 2019 returning to their roles Stephen Tomkinson as Frank Bryant and Jessica Johnson as Rita are perfect. The set is a delight, subtlety understated while still giving us everything we need to process the narrative.  Lighting and music gently setting up the emotional moments well. This is a warm and engaging 40th anniversary tour.

The casting makes this play Jessica Johnson gives us a touch perfect Rita, the accent a little harsher than it should be, but character, attitude, durability and style is captured with an honesty and fierceness which brings Rits to full life. Her development as she follows her Open University course with greying lecturer Frank is a lovely pas de deux of acting. Each actor giving the other just the right amount of space to shine and Director Max Roberts is to be congratulated in delivering such a polished performance and allowing the writing to shine.

It’s filled and fuelled with laughter, and almost all the jokes still work, the struggels with change are examined with authentic tenderness and fear. The sharp wit is allowed to slice and weigh the cost of the pretensions which guard the tender cores of each character.   The interplay between them is full of passion and sparks, clashing and forging of new ideas. Their conversations brimming with regard, hope and loss. Each allowing the other to see their own truth. Each enabling the other to break free, to grow and ultimately to leave where they started from.

Why oh why is this play still relevant?  I was a little worried that it would have aged horribly, but Russell’s writing is egalitarian so still stands up to scrutiny, his ideas dissected with logic and calm anger at the unfairness of life and how the British class system romanticises itself and smothers itself with lies.  The lies we live each day.

Rita’s life story is as valid today as when the play was written in 1980 and Frank’s narrative plays out all around us still. What has changed, in the most terrible way, is women like Rita even having the ability to change, or the time, money or energy needed to pursue education for the sake of it.  We live in an even less socially mobile society than when Russell wrote this beautiful play and it’s biting observations about dreams, change and the pretensions of the British Class system is as relevant as ever. As I wandered off into the brisk Eastbourne night, I reflected on that. And wondered what Rita/Susan would think about us today.  The humour though is what gets us through this.

On tour but well worth the trip out the delightfully comfortable Devonshire Park Theatre with its reasonably priced drinks, superb comfort and free parking!

For more info or to book tickets see their website here: