Occasionally, in the role of seasoned reviewer, one wonders what it would be like to experience a classic comedy-drama for the very first time. And in the case where there has been a popular film version around since the early 1980s – not to have seen that either. Everything fresh, everything new, each witty line and dramatic moment upcoming completely unknown. One has been on this good earth over sixty years and has seen Willy Russell’s Educating Rita a fair few times in and out of the life of a reviewer. It is an exceptionally good play and holds its pedigree well. It is truly inspiring and very human. This touring production directed by Max Roberts and starring Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita has to be the best we’ve seen – ever. It feels like witnessing an original production for the first time.
Why might this be? Well, the acting is very naturalistic from both Tompkinson and Johnson and this allows the comedy to flow naturally from the drama and certainly not be forced for the laughs. Both actors give us warm, regularly funny and vulnerable characters who are humanly aspirant and deeply fallible. We ache for both of them to be redeemed and individually find ways out of each of their ‘stuck in the rut’ lives. We want to love them and Willy Russell’s story enables us to care about them almost as if they were family.
Willy Russell’s writing still has bite after nearly forty years of the play being written and this production is set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The time period setting is vital as working class people’s experience of finding they have a desire to be educated and to improve their lot in life via the Open University was very different then to now. The Open University experience of today is vastly expanded in its subjects and methods of learning.
Set entirely in Frank’s college office (super set design by Patrick Connellan) the action is episodic and rather poetic in the way that one scene slides into the next through music. The style gives a sense of time passing and helps to craft and map out the journeys each character take as they wittingly and unwittingly aid each other via dramas to points of catharsis.
On press night at Nottingham Theatre Royal the audience give the actors and production a spontaneous standing ovation in recognition of a job done exceptionally well and virtual master-classes in understated acting from both actors. It’s an education.
Very highly recommended.
Educating Rita plays at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday May 18th.
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