Educating Rita is a delightfully exhilarating story of a bright, lively woman’s unbreakable determination to get an education through a literature course with the Open University. Rita is a twenty four year old hairdresser in her everyday life, but is doggedly determined to become better educated, what ever it takes.
She has been assigned a tutor by the Open University, Frank, who is a curmudgeonly middle aged university professor, full of self loathing after years of underachieving. Frank dreams of being a great poet, but his ambitions go no further than dreaming about it and drowning his sorrows in alcohol.
Rita is a bright, effervescent, garrulous, young woman who longs to be able to converse with the other students in the University, on a serious intellectual level, and, unlike her tutor, she is determined to do so. Can they help each other? Can Rita achieve her wonderfully modest ambition, and can Frank be inspired to give up the booze in order to and attain his monumental goal? Throughout the story, despite ups and downs and occasional arguments, they, quite tenderly, support each other.
The whole play takes place in Frank’s untidy office, where every bookshelf hides a bottle of whiskey tucked behind a learned tomb. The set is excellent, never too untidy, but just what you might expect from a dusty old academic. Between scenes we are treated to a short piece of the best of eighties pop music, while the stage is in complete darkness.
Danielle Flett, who plays Rita is wonderful. Unlike every other production, at least that I have heard of, she plays Rita as a cockney not a Liverpudlian, but the play still works brilliantly. I suppose that people’s aspirations don’t really have geographic boundaries. Danielle is an experienced actress in many West End productions including The Monkey at Theatre 503 and Dr. Faustus at The Duke of Yorks Theatre, in both of which, I can happily attest, she was excellent.
Ruairi Conaghan plays Frank to a tee, he is a cantankerous and self obsessed man who thinks of his self as a dismal failure. Although never explicitly mentioned, it is clear that he falls in love with the much younger Rita. An educated man with all too human failings. Ruairi has appeared in countless West End plays including Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre and very many more. He was excellent and supremely believable.
As for the writer, Willy Russell, what can you say? He has more awards than can possibly be listed here. He has written the play Shirley Valentine, the musical Blood Brothers, a novel The Wrong Boy and so much more. Educating Rita was however his first and arguably best work.
The story is wonderfully rounded, and the relationship between the two characters becomes charmingly affectionate without ever turning physical. Willy Russell’s dialogue is funny, sharp and somehow true. The very last sentence of the play, hilariously uttered by Rita, is funny, touching and uplifting. It is a fitting finish to this masterpiece of modern writing.
Reviewed by Graham Archer
Educating Rita plays at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 13 May 2017