Educating Rita (Liverpool Playhouse) – 'enchanting'

Gemma Bodinetz’s revival marks the 35th anniversary of Willy Russell’s classic two-hander

Life lessons: Con O'Neill (Frank) and Leanne Best (Rita) in Educating Rita
Life lessons: Con O'Neill (Frank) and Leanne Best (Rita) in Educating Rita
© Stephen Vaughan

Imagine going to Hamlet knowing next to nothing about the play, or about Shakespeare, for that matter – it surely can't be done, not in these information rich days. Back in 1979, however, Willy Russell magically conjured up such a scenario, with his heroine Rita experiencing Macbeth completely cold.

Though Educating Rita is known for its comedy, by the end, in the world according to Rita's tutor Frank, it is also a tragedy: a man who was a gifted poet is, after a brief renaissance, doomed, hell-bent on the path to self-destruction (or, more accurately, Australia).

Leanne Best excels in this final scene but while she deals adroitly with Con O'Neill's infatuated alcoholic Frank, his apparently calm acceptance of her new-found academic confidence does not ring quite true. His petty jealousy has previously erupted in a comment about Mary Shelley, knowing Rita now fully understands the cruel allusion.

But this is nitpicking, because right from the start, the audience is in for a treat. Conor Murphy's set is damn near as breathtaking as the first view of the magnificent Picton Library: a tome-lined, almost tomb-like chamber; hidey hole for him, a whole new world for her. It's dominated by a low, tilted circular ceiling-cum-screen, which is somewhat under-used; after a whizz through 1970s images, there's just a close-up and details from a painting Rita admires.

© Stephen Vaughan

One of the most impressive things about this perennially popular play is that it is manages to grip the attention using a solitary location, thanks to Russell's remarkable, sparkling dialogue. Rita – passionate, determined, and goodness, so brave and funny – is a completely enchanting heroine. It helps of course that she is so attractive, in her trendy clothes – yes, even for the 70s. Frank meanwhile is stuck with his cardies, a kind of monochrome uniform.

And for an erudite man, whose pupil is bewitched by her muse, he should know a lot better as the roles shift. Harking back to Pygmalion and Galatea, Rita is far more than raw material to be moulded, or indeed, owned. Initially, she feels she has neither the mind or the language to express her feelings and thoughts; similarly, words can barely do justice to Best's performance – suffice it to say she was born to play the role. Meanwhile, O'Neill almost eradicates thoughts of Michael Caine's performance in the film version.

There was, of course, a standing ovation – for the actors, director Gemma Bodinetz, Willy Russell, and for Liverpool. Tickets have nearly sold out, so make sure of yours.

Educating Rita continues until 7 March