Willy Russell’s massive success has to be one of British theatre’s best kept secrets. Maybe it’s because the man himself is rather publicity shy, or maybe it’s because he likes to let his work do the talking, but Russell never quite seems to get the credit for the genius that he is. His multi award-winning plays have been performed for over 40 years, his most famous musical, Blood Brothers, has been running for over 25 years, the films made from his plays became international blockbusters and all that from a man who started his working life as a hairdresser.
That experience as a hairdresser, who knew he wanted more out of life, must have been the inspiration for one of his simplest, and best, works – Educating Rita. The story of a Liverpool housewife who hungers for knowledge, first performed by Julie Walters and Mark Kingston at the Donmar Warehouse in 1980, is just as fresh, vibrant, funny and poignant today as it was back then.
Claire Sweeney is totally believable as the brash, brassy, rough diamond Rita. From the moment that she bursts through the dodgy office door right through until the dramatic conclusion, she gives everything she has to the role and absolutely sails through the performance.
Every inch a match for Sweeney’s portrayal, is Matthew Kelly’s performance as her unkempt, alcoholic and very reluctant tutor, Frank, a man with a vast array of jumpers and cardigans, which were changed with frightening frequency. His mannerisms and predictable clichés are a great reminder, to many in the audience, of their own tutors and lecturers of times gone by.
The set is Frank’s office, a place that fascinates Rita almost as much as it is loathed by her tutor, with the bookcases serving very well to hide a huge number of whiskey bottles – all very neatly filed behind the books. The story flows quickly and the multiple scene changes help to keep the show fresh and prevent it from appearing too wordy, with the gentle humour permeating the entire performance and Sweeney’s transformation from foul-mouthed hairdresser to intellectual divorcee, both inspiring and heart-rending.
Kelly and Sweeney are obviously really enjoying this piece and that enjoyment bursts through the fourth wall and envelopes the entire audience who relish their superb performances and fantastic on-stage chemistry.