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Educating Rita (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

Lenny Henry recovers from drying but struggles to match his co-star in Willy Russell's two-hander

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Lenny Henry (Frank) and Lashana Lynch (Rita) in Educating Rita
© Francis Loney

It's interesting to wonder how Willy Russell would write Educating Rita today. In an era where more women go to college than men and where girls do better than boys at school, it may be instructive to swap the roles around. Director Michael Buffong's new production features an all-black cast, which is a worthwhile idea, though the execution leaves something to be desired.

That's certainly not down to Lashana Lynch's Rita: there's an exuberance and vitality about her performance that ensures Frank is not the only person captivated. From her first appearance, almost literally bursting through the door, hers is a performance of some verve - her scouse accent is a bit wobbly at first but she finds her feet as quickly as Rita finds herself lost in the wonders of English literature.

Lenny Henry's performance as the jaded Frank, however, is less assured. Maybe it was first night nerves - at one stage he got so tongue-tied over the differences between subjectivity and objectivity that he had to leave the stage for a few minutes. He recovered his composure but Henry's performance never really catches fire.

We certainly can sense his disgust with the university system and his superficial students, but Henry doesn't capture the full self-pity of Frank. While he's stronger by the end, it's a low-key performance and not just in comparison with Lynch's. He's certainly not helped by Buffong's plodding direction; it meanders to its conclusion despite Ellen Cairn's imaginative design and Lynch's bewildering range of costume changes - there are too many of these, and the gap between the scenes contribute to the lethargic pace.

Maybe this will improve through the run - it certainly seemed as if Henry was holding himself back and will grow into the role. But it's worth seeing for Lynch's performance alone; she's a Rita for our times.

Educating Rita continues in the Chichester Minerva until 25 July 2015