The Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita couldn't be more timely. With English universities hiking their course fees to three times their previous rates, the financial and social barriers to education are becoming as tall as the spires at Cambridge. Education, Russell reminds us, is not just for the elite.
A modern Prometheus, stealing knowledge from the gods of her own creation, the play tracks the educational aspirations of Rita, a brash and bawdy Liverpudlian hairdresser who defies the expectations of her class, tosses her tongs and begins an Open University degree in English Literature. Amongst the cloisters, she meets the heavy-drinking Frank, a morose tutor who has lost his verve and found the bottle. The two soon embark on a cultural exchange which tests the limits of their identities, experiencing the elation of education and the disappointments of dependency.
Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney make a convincing pair as the mismatched Rita and Frank. Finding realism in the character's optimism, Sweeney is funny and engaging as Rita, fired with a passionate need to prove herself though at times lacking in the subtextual sadness of the character. Matthew Kelly, too, is excellent as Frank, finding the character's desperate need to be needed with subtlety and ease. He delivers his lines with the academic crispness of Oxbridge and a skewed kindness which is both paternal and fraternal.
Perhaps the most jarring element of this otherwise fine production is its sloppy and distracting transitions. Between scenes, the characters stalk around in the darkness, fumbling to throw on sweaters and carefully make their way to the set's grand window in half-light. Whilst this has not great implication for the development subsequent scenes, these transitions make the piece feel disjointed and lacking fluidity. Furthermore, Paul Anderson's lighting does little to set the emotional tone of the scenes and, perhaps as a consequence, the action feels somewhat repetitive.
What this production lacks is a sense of pathos. It regularly shies away from the emotional depths of its characters until much too late in the play and, when it finally attempts to address the clash of class and change, fails to address their inner workings. The humour is there, of course, and lands with wit and good timing, but the tragedy of the situation feels tagged on and artificial.
Tamara Harvey's production of Educating Rita is rather like the funny teacher at school who can't teach: it will make you laugh but you won't necessarily learn anything new from it.