Chris Honer oversees rehearsals of <i>Educating Rita</i>.
Chris Honer oversees rehearsals of Educating Rita.
© Library Theatre Company

There is a bittersweet edge to The Library Theatre's 2013/14 season. It is the final season at their temporary home at The Lowry and the last to be overseen by Director Chris Honer.

Educating Rita, the first play in the season, was officially launched this week. We went along to hear the background to the production and chat to the director and cast.

Chris Honer introduced the small cast - Gillian Kearney who plays Rita and Philip Bretherton as Frank. To start the season Honer wanted a great play by a living writer which had not been seen in the area for some time. Educating Rita was the perfect choice having a strong resonance for the local area and the present education situation. A vivid central character whose determination to broaden her limited horizons shows that the benefits of education go beyond the current narrow viewpoint of just equipping people for the workplace.

The play has autobiographical aspects as author Willy Russell left school unqualified and, like Rita, worked as a ladies hairdresser. Conscious that his efforts at writing might be taken more seriously if he had some formal education Russell funded his studies with a part time job cleaning factory girders. The play even has a link to Manchester as it was written when Russell was writer-in-residence at the University.

Although Russell has updated the play the Library Theatre's version will use the original text and a 1980s setting. Honer feels that the play is very much of its time and that the idea of a lecturer drinking on the job would not be credible today.

In opening the launch to questions from the audience Honer asked Gillian Kearney what, after four weeks of rehearsal, had surprised her about the character of Rita?

Gillian Kearney:

Rita is a very well known character but as we've worked she has come across as even more brave that I first thought. She is as confident as I'd imagined but more sensitive and open so is likeable for all her faults. Rita doesn't try to cover things up or distract you from them by concentrating on the superficial.

Both of the actors are familiar with the Manchester area. Kearney has worked at the Royal Exchange and Philip Bretherton studied at Manchester University. Honer asked him if there were any similarities between his version of Frank and his former lecturers.

Philip Bretherton:

Well if there weren't any to begin with there are now! Frank is a conglomeration of tutors I've known; some very fusty and trapped. Drinking at lunchtime in the late 1970s was common in the educational and corporate sectors. Frank is an alcoholic yet Rita's passion for education makes him aware of the opportunities that have been open to him and that he has lost. When Rita starts to need his guidance less he feels that she is turning into someone he does not approve of and starts to drink more.

Provision of education in the UK has changed greatly since the play was written. Were you worried that audiences who have to pay for further education might lose sympathy with the characters?

Chris Honer:

Rita is paying for her Open University course so her situation is not much different from modern day students. The under-grads that she comes into contact with would have benefited from the old system of funding education but you have to trust audiences to make the adjustment for different time periods. They are very bright and know that, say, Edwardian England was different to today so am confident they'll accept and understand the situation in the play.

You emphasised that the play has resonance for the local area and Gillian is Liverpudlian did you wonder if a more neutral approach might increase the universal appeal of the play?

Chris Honer:

We did consider not setting the play in Liverpool and interviewed a wide range of potential Rita's including Mancunians . But Gillian gave the best audition and her casting moved us towards Liverpool. Besides, it just feels right – the play even smells like Liverpool.

Should we see an element of class-consciousness with Rita a Liverpudlian and the better educated Frank clearly from elsewhere?

Chris Honer:

There are elements of privilege and opportunity in the play. Frank is a published poet with a good job and knows what books to buy. But he sees himself as a failed poet in a dreary education system and perceives Rita as fresh and direct. The friction that grows between them is not class-based but due to Rita developing in ways that Frank does not approve.

Gillian Kearney:

The relationship is not class based but educational. Rita has a lot of anger at the start of the play. Her choices are limited and she can only express herself by taking negative actions - to refuse to have a child. By the end of the play she is no longer trapped by fear and anger and her options are wide open. She even says one of them is to have a child!

It's surprising to hear Philip describe Frank as an alcoholic. Aren't you worried that portraying him in that way rather than a lovable drunk will make the character unsympathetic?

Chris Honer:

If someone is concealing whiskey bottles and keeping himself topped up with alcohol all day you have to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Philip Bretherton:

The word ‘alcoholic' is never used in the play and no one ever refers to Frank's drinking. But it is in the text of the play that he drinks regularly and secretly and these are symptoms of alcoholism. It also serves a dramatic purpose as Frank cuts back on his drinking as his relationship with Rita develops and then gets worse as she begins to move away from his influence.

Gillian Kearney:

Frank has a lot of charm. Hopefully both characters are likeable. In the end frank turns out to have been correct and to have seen the bigger picture. Rita feels Frank is trying to keep her in what he sees as her place whereas he really is worried that she is going to become too academic and lose her spirit.

How do you go about staging a play that boils down to two people in a room talking?

Chris Honer:

You have to make sure that the visual aspect supports the script. Everything that happens has to be right for the story. When that's clear you can decide who should move where or who should sit, stand or leave.

Did you consider developing the relationship between Rita and Frank as, say, a Muse/ Poet?

Philip Bretherton:

Rita doesn't so much inspire as balance Frank. He is disillusioned with teaching regarding one set of pupils as appalling and says the others get by despite what he does. Frank just needs the right pupil as a settling influence. When Frank starts writing poetry again while Rita is on holiday he does so to prompt her towards a higher standard of criticism. He is worried that he has taught Rita how to pass exams and that she might have lost her instinctive visceral passion in the process. Frank wants Rita to rediscover her honest reaction rather than use one that she has been taught.

Rita is a very positive role model. Is it daunting to portray someone people might regard as inspirational?

Gillian Kearney:

Everyone has an idea of what Rita should be like. I want to be sure I do justice to the script. I consider all the different approaches and concentrate on the dialogue and from that work out the characterisation. Rita is very positive but at the start of the play is humble and unformed. She has the strength to stand out from negative influences – the voices that told her it's not cool to study. Rita has aspirations but is limited by her environment and can't acknowledge them until later. She admits she doesn't bother talking to her husband at home but explodes when she enters Frank's study with all its books and never shuts up when she is with him!

Educating Rita starts the last season at The Lowry. It'd be remiss not to ask how the new venue is coming along.

Chris Honer:

Great! We're on schedule for opening in Spring 2015. Construction has reached the point where, from Whitworth Street, you can actually see the back wall of the stage. To make sure audiences have the chance to see Library Theatre productions in the interim period between leaving The Lowry and the new venue opening we'll set up a series of shows to tour local venues.

''Educating Rita'' is at The Lowry from 26th September to 12th October 2013

- Dave Cunningham