The Menier Chocolate Factory can certainly do Willy Russell – they had an excellent season of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine a couple of years back which transferred to Trafalgar Studios so I had inevitably high hopes in advance of seeing the former at the Oxford Playhouse this week.
The set is a trusty study, books and booze adorning the walls as one would expect in this production. The lighting feels like it was whipped up in no time at all with very little subtleness or tone used –a dreadful projection of a tree outside the window, half the time whitewashed by other lamps, gives the only variation detectable in tone until the final couple of scenes.
Educating Rita itself is superb; sadly this production does not live up to it. Direction throughout is passable at best, allowing Matthew Kelly to sway from melodrama to pantomime and back again with little in the way of nuanced thought while Claire Sweeney seems to feel that sounding vaguely Liverpudlian was all it needed to emit Rita’s drive to learn.
Russell needs subtly, less is more. Light laughs a plenty here, however if you’re on the lookout for a clever, thoughtful production, save the pennies.