The Menier Chocolate Factory’s Willy Russell double bill of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine opened to press last week (8 April 2010, previews from 26 March), where they continue in rep until 8 May. The plays, never previously paired in repertory, “are joined at the theatrical hip”: both are comedic studies of working-class women struggling to escape rigid environments.
In Educating Rita, Rita (Laura Dos Santos), a young, brash hairdresser, has recently discovered a passion for English literature and enrols with the Open University. Her fresh, unschooled reaction to the classics challenges the attitudes of the University and her lecturer Frank (Larry Lamb) who begins to question his own understanding of his work and himself.
In the monologue Shirley Valentine, Meera Syal plays a middle-aged Liverpudlian housewife who talks to the wall whilst preparing her husband’s egg and chips. When her best friend wins an all-expenses-paid vacation for two to Greece she packs her bags, heads for the sun and starts to see the world and herself rather differently…
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (Rita three stars, Shirley four stars) – “Even though they date from a lifetime ago, Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita still sound like a breath of fresh air. Never paired before, the Menier revival offers two definitive studies in self-discovery and self-improvement, with two wonderful Scouse heroines … it’s Shirley, directed now, as it was then, by Glen Walford, that strikes me as the better play … Meera Syal is simply terrific as Shirley, combining the forms of monologue, interior reflection, stand-and-deliver comedy and a whole gallery of supporting characters in a rich fruitcake of a performance … It’s an intensely moving play, with great jokes, too. Educating Rita is a little more schematic and Jeremy Sams’ production has condensed the two short acts into one, making this even more obvious. The scenes are sometimes too short for their own good, the punchlines variable, but the performances by Laura Dos Santos as 29 year-old, bright-as-a-button Rita and Larry Lamb as the shambolic alcoholic tutor are completely engaging, and you get a great sense of life experience out-flanking the prescriptive and redemptive virtues of art and education; to make a distinction proves gloriously unworkable.”
Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (Rita three stars, Shirley four stars) – “…Russell is a writer of genuine nobility of spirit, with a rare gift for empathy, observation, and sheer humanity. He has a particular knack for getting inside the minds of women, evidenced in both these plays, and a moving and persuasive belief, that lives can be transformed for the better. Educating Rita strikes me as a truly great play … The humour is superb, with a succession of blissful one-liners and cultural misunderstandings, but the relationship that develops between Rita and her alcoholic tutor, who comes to need her more than she needs him, is also deeply moving. Unfortunately Jeremy Sams’s production isn’t in the same league as the film version … newcomer Laura dos Santos brings a winning vitality and depth of feeling to the role. Larry Lamb however cannot compete with memories of Caine’s performance as the tutor … Lamb needs to dig deeper. I have no reservations at all however about Meera Syal who gives a heart-catching performance as Shirley Valentine … completely infectious. This is a lesser play than Educating Rita, but in Syall’s lovely performance, and Glen Walford’s beautifully judged production, it will glow in the memory of all who see it.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (Rita four stars, Shirley four stars) – “Welcome back onstage, Shirley and Rita, you’ve been lost to the cinema for too long. Cherishable as this delightful Willy Russell double bill is, it’s hard not to reflect on the difference 25-odd years makes … it seems quaint that Rita should think her route to salvation lies via Anton Chekhov rather than Simon Cowell … Meera Syal, confidently directed by Glen Walford, sails through Shirley’s potentially daunting monologue … beguiling us with her quiet, cheerful desperation. It’s glorious to watch her glow with contentment in the Greek sunshine of the second half, and we too bask in its, and her, reflected rays. If we don’t quite believe that Larry Lamb has read every volume on those high university bookshelves it doesn’t matter, as lecturer Frank is primarily a benign sounding board for hairdresser-cum-Open University convert Rita. There are plentiful pleasing echoes of Julie Walters-style sparkiness from Laura Dos Santos … Sweet times at the Chocolate Factory.”
Dominic Maxwell in The Times (Rita three stars, Shirley four stars) – “Both plays retain their period setting … but their central dilemmas remain as relevant as ever … Syal’s show is the triumph. She invests this brilliantly witty monologue with all her considerable comic energy without ever short-changing us on the sadness of a middle-aged life in limbo … she relays Shirley’s domestic frustration and foreign liberation with energy and care. There are plenty of laughs here … that great Liverpudlian mix of sentiment and cynicism … affecting, funny and fresh. Laura Dos Santos gives a fluid, lively performance as the hairdresser in Educating Rita. Opposite her, Larry Lamb looks less convinced by himself as Frank … But though Jeremy Sams’s production lacks dynamism early on, the short scenes grow persuasive as the drama sprouts between Rita’s rocky path to finding herself and Frank’s bitterness … Without more sense of Frank’s inner life you’re rarely in much doubt that Rita is taking the right course. But, 30 years on, these snappy lines remain rewarding.”
Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (Rita four stars, Shirley four stars) – “… (Russell’s) writing chimes with ordinary people ... and I mean that not in a condescending way, but in that we are all ordinary people … Russell is unashamed of sentimentality, but he knows that its power lies in its honesty. It’s also grimly interesting to see, up to 30 years on, how un-quaint these tales are in terms of working-class women’s autonomy: neither the hostility of each woman’s offstage partner nor Frank’s covert Pygmalion syndrome seem at all dated … Syal and her director Glen Walford ring some nicely subtle changes, letting us see each step on her journey to self-rediscovery … As Rita, Laura Dos Santos is similarly friendly, without being as brash as Julie Walters in the film version. This is a distinctly human Rita. A human Frank, too: under Jeremy Sams’ direction, Larry Lamb is always friendly towards Rita, never spiky, even suppressing behind smiles his unease and resentment at her growing intellectual assurance … I like these shows, and that I think they speak to all of us.”
Paul Callan in the Daily Express (Rita three stars, Shirley four stars) – “Willy Russell’s comic masterpieces are joined at the theatrical hip. Both are frequently hilarious studies of working-class women struggling to escape rigid environments … Laura Dos Santos displays impeccable comic timing as Rita and combines this talent with an understanding of the pathos that lies behind a young woman aching for self-improvement … I predict a glowing future for the highly-talented Ms Dos Santos … Sadly, though, Larry Lamb’s alcoholic tutor lacks the bitter cynicism the role demands. There was a need to be more shambolic and he even looked too neat … Jeremy Sams directs tightly … Meera Syal gives a memorable performance as Shirley … She brings a touching anguish to the role … There are some great comic lines which are delivered with polish … Although her accent wanders around the north Ms Syal delivers a near-perfect portrayal of a woman rediscovering her soul.”
Kate Kellaway in the Observer – “The Willy Russell double bill at the Menier Chocolate Factory is a treat … Meera Syal is irresistible as Shirley Valentine: warm, communicative and bittersweet. She has the audience eating out of her hand … Willy Russell's play is more than 20 years old, yet it is, spryly directed by Glen Walford, as fresh as Shirley Valentine herself. Educating Rita also retains its charm (though less certainly in places) in an adroitly cut, 90-minute version directed with flair by Jeremy Sams. Larry Lamb convinces as Frank, a genial, condescending, disappointed professor … Laura Dos Santos catches Rita's garrulous curiosity perfectly … What an invigorating delight it is to see these plays together – female companion pieces – with their linked messages about two women finding ways to become themselves.”
Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “Now two of Russell’s best-known plays have been cheerfully revived … You can't really get a purloined credit card between them, but the better play is probably Educating Rita … In both plays Russell comes across as a cod-feminist who learnt to pamper ladies' egos while working in a hair salon. Still, his formula of self discovery and sexual liberation is a heady one. There is also great wit and wisdom … Moreover, both plays still offer glorious roles. Meera Syal obviously relishes the housewife condemned to making egg and chips for a sullen husband … In Educating Rita, Larry Lamb captures the dowdy lecturer's lush pathos … Laura Dos Santos is an exuberantly wise-cracking foil, providing a blast of fresh Mersey air … We certainly haven't heard the last of her.”
- Jude Offord