Review: Educating Rita at Derby Theatre

five star

It is down to the playwriting genius of Willy Russell that he has the ability to establish highly credible and fallible characters by their own particular actions, opinions and words, nigh on, within less than three  lustrously enjoyable minutes, of the actual play opening. Very few playwrights are capable of that! Such is the case in Russell’s enormously popular Educating Rita now running at Derby Theatre in a much anticipated transfer from the Octagon Theatre Bolton.

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Even as the Derby audience gather to take their seats, the sense of bubbling excitement is palpable. Some punters may be familiar with the play already and some may have seen the film version some years ago. You know, Michael Caine ‘n Julie Walters ‘n all tha’. Liverpool accents prevailing.

Some folks, however, may have no idea of the joys about to unfold on stage but, have been encouraged to come to the theatre tonight by friends. As Rita says in the play about a production of Macbeth (her first experience of live theatre) “I wanted to find out. But listen, it wasn’t borin’, it was bleedin’ great, honest. It done me in. It was fantastic!”

These fictional expressions of theatrical revelation are mere understatements compared to attempting to describe this gorgeous production of Educating Rita at Derby Theatre. This reviewer will attempt to have a go. Just don’t get him started on staging a radio production of Peer Gynt.  Educating Rita in joke.

Educating Rita Production Photos Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Educating Rita Production Photos
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The play has just begun and the fantastically realistic set is a wonder of dust-covered dishevelled academia with naughty hidden bottles of booze stuffed behind specific books: all courtesy of impressive set and lighting designer Ciaran Bagnall. As this episodic play tantalisingly evolves under the excellent direction of director Elizabeth Newman, the theatrical set itself takes on a vibrant life of its own. At times the vista of Frank’s office almost becomes religious as shafts of seeming sacred light stream in through the window. At other times out dramatic senses are treated to a downpour battering against the window. The Rain It Raineth Every Day but rarely on stage.

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Already, we have the excellent David Birrell as bespectacled and reluctant OU tutor Frank chuntering on the telephone to his female partner and officiously telling her he may be late home; he may, very likely, go to the pub instead of coming home in fact and yes, he is a bit pissed and rather ironically relates that he is happy to eat lamb cooked to the point of abuse, never mind the condition of the non-burnable ratatouille. One page in and we have the audience laughing their socks off at these private revelations already.

Educating Rita Production Photos Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Educating Rita Production Photos
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The laughter now continues as attractive hairdresser and would-be OU student Rita (Jessica Baglow) struggles with the door knob to Frank’s office and offers out her nervously cheeky opinions of the ‘erotic’ historical art she interprets as “… the pornography of its day … but in those days they had to pretend it wasn’t erotic so they made it religious, didn’t they?” Her opinions betray an innate intelligence and wit that, in order to be academically acceptable in examination terms suffer from a stultifying need to be properly authentic and cross referenced by ‘learned scholars’ opinions. Individuality of expression is seemingly secondary to formal educational requisites and therefore: the academic restriction blunts the true poetic life of authentic ‘uneducated’ expression. This situation forms the argument and backbone of this piece of theatre. This all sounds terribly dry and serious but Willy Russell’s terrific skill is to express this all through wit and the unstable exposition of the false nobility of his two characters.

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The ongoing magical chemistry of Birrell and Baglow throughout the two hours plus of artistic traffic on the Derby Theatre stage in Educating Rita is an utter, continually beaming and totally understanding smile. All in all, it is a total joy to behold.

As Russell’s emotionally compelling and funny text takes us further and further into complex emotional territories between the two characters. their self discoveries and definitions of unseen friends and family invade our own audience consciousness to the point of near collusion. Rooting earnestly for Frank and Rita to learn life lessons hardly describes it. One character (Frank) is sinking in self pity and the other is trying to join the top surfers on the big wave of academia without so much as a proverbial paddle (Rita). Both struggle to survive and that is the essence of the drama and its eventual cathartic exposition.

In one joyous moment one is laughing at the clever wit of the piece and in the next demi second Willy Russell has spun your expectations and emotions around to the point of tear jerking redemptive pride in Rita’s changing personality. She is rapidly becoming an ‘educated woman’ not only through her self determination to improve her working class lot ( a common theme in the works of Willy Russell) both academically and socially but also, she has grown to love Frank as a flawed person and is determined to redeem him as well as realise her own follies.

Jessica Baglow’s second act speech beginning “I care for you Frank … But you’ve got to – to leave me alone a bit. I’m not an idiot now, Frank – I don’t need you to hold me hand as much… I can – I can do things on me own now…” is tear jerkingly well delivered.

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She goes on to mention the corny titled Ruby Fruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. This is a book she considers good ‘literature’ in the early part of the play and which snobby ‘ more educated’ English Literature professor Frank dismisses as very poor reading matter alongside E.M Forster. Only connect – indeed.

Now, it is within the bounds of reason that mere theatre reviewers can be ‘educated’ too for, prior to reading the notes in the programme, this reviewer had always ignorantly assumed that the fruity title referred to a tatty worthless novel. Not at all! Ruby Fruit Jungle turns out to be a life changing work from Rita Mae Brown that discusses the importance of finding one’s own voice and freedom. Precisely therefore, the moral and aspirational ethics of Willy Russell’s play! He’s not daft this Russell fella! Rita Mae Brown herself contracts the book into the following apposite definition

“ The most revolutionary thing you can do is be yourself, to speak your truth, to open your arms to life, including the pain. Find your passions.”

From jocular beginning to poignant but happy end Educating Rita at Derby Theatre (is that a case of near assonance in title and place of event? Rita – Theatre?) is supremely good theatre, delightfully amusing and life enhancing. To paraphrase the lovable if booze wobbly Frank “ It’s an unashamedly emotional statement about a certain experience… it’s wonderful!”

Final personal note from this reviewer and, this may come in useful in your exams dear readers. ‘Sometimes the human posterior and the welcoming theatre seat only ‘have to connect’ and all is extremely well.’ Phil Lowe with some little inspiration from a certain E.M Forster. Aussi Lagermeister and novelist extraordinaire.

Reviewer: Phil Lowe

Educating Rita runs at Derby Theatre until Sat 11 March.

Can’t recommend highly enough!

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