Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is the intellectual’s Pygmalion; a disillusioned professor teaching a spirited but poor young woman how to better herself. But rather than focusing on elocution and poise, Russell’s Rita wants to become an intellectual heavyweight and so she starts an Open University course, landing the drink-addled Frank as her tutor.
Mathew Kelly and Claire Sweeney take on the roles of Frank and Rita with excellent comic timing and quick paced wit. Kelly’s gruff voice and slightly drunken mannerisms fit the character of a musty, disillusioned academic and it really feels as though the producers have pulled him straight out of the lecture hall and pushed him on stage. His warmth means that he lacks the glint of true self-destruction that so many addicts have, and so the audience never truly gets pulled in to his story. But that’s okay as this is Rita’s show.
Sweeney is perfect as Rita. She is full of the vitality and brashness that is needed to make Rita both impressive and likable and the audience warm to her instantly. We cringe with Kelly when she starts to spout pretentious drivel and applaud when she achieves success.
Frank’s office is a haven of books, with shelf upon shelf heaving under the weight of leather-bound volumes (no doubt several charity shops made a pretty penny the day that props were bought). Tim Shortall’s design and Jemma Gardner’s props create a towering castle of literature that inspires awe in Rita and despair in Frank.
A major flaw in this production are the ineffective scene changes. Kelly moves at a snail’s pace and the audience see him change jumpers so often it feels as though he’s at Marks & Spencer, and simply can’t decide which cardigan goes best with his shoes. Tamara Harvey’s direction has both him and Sweeney fiddling with papers, reading books and all manner of rhubarb-acting in an odd half-light that leaves you wondering whether the scene has begun. Paul Anderson’s lighting design does very little to distinguish the evening scenes from the scene changes and is subsequently confusing for the audience.
Having said that Educating Rita is a funny and thought provoking piece of theatre that re-ignites your appreciation of the arts. You will leave itching to get stuck into a good book, and feeling grateful that you can do so.