Last night I went to the Octagon Theatre to see ‘Educating Rita’ by Willy Russell, probably most famous for the 1986 film version, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. In case you haven’t encountered the play before, it’s a story set in the 1970s and revolves around the relationship between Rita, a hairdresser who signs up for a Literature course with the Open University, and her disillusioned, heavy-drinking tutor, Frank.
All the action takes place in Frank’s traditionally shabby, literature-lined University study, where Rita goes for her tutorials. Through their conversations, and a series of telephone calls throughout the play, we learn that Frank is in a long-term relationship with a fellow lecturer that seems be stuck in a rut, just like his working life. The play opens with him sitting alone, listening to classical music and reading, whilst drinking whisky, bottles of which he (not very) cunningly conceals behind some of the famous authors on his bookshelves. He is bemoaning the fact that he has agreed to the tutorials, for drinking money, when there is a commotion at the door which announces the arrival of his new student.
Rita blows into the room and disrupts the calm interior with her brash manner and broad Scouse accent. There is immediate discord between the two, but a very quick realisation that Frank is intrigued by her down-to-earth simplicity and clear eagerness to learn. We learn that she is a hairdresser and has to hide her enthusiasm from her husband, who wants her to have a baby, rather than follow her dreams of studying in order to ‘better herself’.
Gradually Rita’s effervescent enthusiasm seems to awaken Frank’s dormant literary passion once more, and the two start to verbally spar as the relationship develops and the playing field levels between them. The rapport between the two feels genuine and draws the audience in.
Jessica Baglow is perfectly cast as Rita, delivering an assured performance throughout the character’s journey from naïve hairdresser to confident young woman. David Birrell, as Frank, provides the perfect foil with his portrayal of the jaded lecturer whose life veers from despair to hope and then back, during the process (as he reminds us) of creating his own Frankenstein’s monster.
I must confess that I certainly empathised with Rita, having undergone a very similar experience myself, albeit slightly later in life. This is a very entertaining and uplifting production that I think many people will be able to relate to. Although the ending is slightly bittersweet, it leaves the audience feeling inspired and entertained. The play is set in the round and this, with the inventive set design, serves to really enhance the intimacy of the piece. This is a very entertaining evening with an accomplished cast – just the thing to brighten a dull winter’s day.
The play runs at the Octagon until Saturday 11th February, so book now while tickets are still available. Box Office 01204 520661.