Nigel Powlson interviews David Birrell and Jessica Baglow who are appearing in Educating Rita, a Derby Theatre and Octagon Theatre, Bolton Production
IT may be 37 years since Educating Rita made its debut but Willy Russell’s inspired play’s message of ‘escape through education’ is just as fresh and relevant today.
Commissioned by the RSC, the play was first performed at the Warehouse in London in 1980 with Julie Walters in the title role. Three years later came a popular film version with Walters again playing Rita and Michael Caine as Frank.
Since then, the play has continued to charm audiences and has never been out of production somewhere in the world.
Educating Rita was inspired by Russell’s own experiences at evening classes and tells the story of hairdresser Rita, who sees an Open University course as a way of expanding her life chances and experiences. Her tutor is jaded lecturer Frank, who begins to question his own understandings as a result of seeing things through Rita’s eyes.
Now, Derby Theatre and Octagon Theatre Bolton have joined forces for a new production of this uplifting journey of self-discovery.
Frank is played by David Birrell, who won a Manchester Theatre Award for his role as Peter Stockmann in Enemy of the People and for his role of Osborne in Journey’s End, both for the Octagon Theatre.
Rita is played by Jessica Baglow. She recently received an Ian Charleson Award commendation for her performance as Marina in Pericles at the Globe Theatre (2015) and was awarded a Manchester Theatre Award for her role as Poppy in the ensemble of Noises Off (Octagon Theatre Bolton, 2015).
Both Jessica and David have a passion not only for Russell’s play but also for its enduring themes.
David says: “My own experience was of not enjoying school and in south Manchester a lot of my mates left as soon as they could. In that way my image of school is similar to that of Rita’s who says that liking it was ‘not allowed’ by her peer group. I stayed on at school because I didn’t know what else to do and far too late I discovered that I quite liked the lessons even if I didn’t like school. Through that I discovered an interest in drama and had three wonderful years at drama school in Bristol.
“So education directly affected my choices.
“Frank in the play says he’s not a good teacher and that Rita needs one. Good teachers do have a lasting impact and I was lucky to have an English and art teacher who were slightly eccentric and theatrical and who inspired me.
“Willy Russell was a teacher and the way he reached kids in terribly difficult schools was through his innate theatricality.
“What I love about the play is that as well as Rita blossoming, Frank grows into being a better teacher as well.”
Jessica also credits education with opening up her life chances.
She says: “I wouldn’t be where I am now without those opportunities. But what I like about the play is that it’s not saying that you have to go to university, get a degree and pursue a career and that’s it. It’s saying that through education, you can chose what you want to do. You might want a career, to have a baby, or travel the world. What education does is give you the landscape to choose. I know I wouldn’t be working in theatre if I hadn’t been to drama school. Because of that I had that choice. It took me to London and opened up the world for me.
“What we have to remember is that it’s not easy for Rita to get this education she so desires. She makes sacrifices for it and the play also explores the possibility of losing yourself by trying to broaden your horizons. It tears Rita and Frank apart when he recognises that as a result of what she has learned she is starting to abandon her uniqueness.”
The play is directed by Elizabeth Newman and is a two-hander – meaning the stage chemistry between Jessica and David is a key factor.
The on stage spark between the pair is aided by the fact that they have worked with each other before.
Jessica says: “Essentially we get on and share the same silly humour, which helps massively. Elizabeth has chosen us for a purpose, maybe because we are similar and we care about the work. If you can get the chemistry between two people right, it’s quite easy to transfer that onto the stage.”
David adds: “Even if you have characters that don’t get on you have two people who essentially trust each other as actors in a room. Neither of us have done a two hander before and it’s amazing how much trust you have to put in the other actor.”
Audiences are familiar with Educating Rita through previous stage versions and the hit film but David and Jessica hope they will see this production through fresh eyes.
Jessica says: “I watched the film years ago but not again before rehearsals as I thought we would begin anew. There are so many differences to the film, which has this outside world that’s not in the play. On stage you get a more concentrated idea of these two people – as it’s only them. I think it makes the relationship between them more palpable.
David adds: “Lots of people will have seen the film, and many more will have seen the play as well. Therefore there is a weight of expectations but that’s because it is such a popular play and you are aware that people want to come and enjoy it. But in terms of trying to fill other people’s shoes playing these roles, I don’t think that’s an issue.
“You have two people whose DNA is incredibly different to any other people who have done it. We have all done plays where we are conscious of their history but like a famous musician playing a celebrated piece, we will react to it in a different way. It’s about interpretation. It’s about two people connecting in a room – that’s all the play gives you as a starting point, nothing else.
“Elizabeth’s approach to the play is also very different to anyone who has tackled it since that original production. No updating has gone on, no tinkering with the story or text, it’s a period piece and you can’t alter that. The play remains brilliant on the page. In the journey we have taken in rehearsals,
Elizabeth has had a specific aim which was to acknowledge that it’s a period piece but to understand that there are people like Rita out there now who desperately need a choice. We have almost come full circle and education for people like Rita is becoming out of reach again. That’s what makes it worth doing. There are Ritas in Derby today. Russell sets the play in a university in a northern town, not specifically Liverpool, he wrote it in that idiom as that was his voice.
Jessica agrees: “The messages in the play is so needed today, that’s why audiences are still gaining so much from it.”
Despite having so much still to say, the great trick of Russell’s play is that it is never less than hugely entertaining.
David says: “The first preview was almost a massive shock for us after being in rehearsal where there was only really four of us and then having all these people around us laughing. You realise that it is witty. It’s in the Language – it is like Pygmalion, or Oscar Wilde. Some of it comes from Rita in the way she uses language and some in a different way from Frank. Even the literary reference – you don’t need to know about Chekhov, or Yeats, you still get the comedy as it’s in the rhythm.”
Ultimately though David believes it’s the way Educating Rita speaks to audiences that matters most.
He says: “Even though it was written 37 years ago, there is so much of the play that you can apply to now. No particular event, politician or party is mentioned so everything Rita says is still relevant. It’s extraordinary.”