How do you react when you’re out of your comfort zone? Some become verbose. Others might take to drink. When we meet onstage the two characters of Willy Russell’s 1980s success Educating Rita (as with the rest of us) their lives are populated with a host of people who may be physically offstage but become just as real as Rita and her reluctant Open University tutor Frank.
Ros Philips’ production brings the action forward onto a thrust stage with the audience on three sides. I’m not sure that this makes it more immediate, even with Polly Sullivan’s suitably dishevelled set. Sally Ferguson’s lighting design is either deeply symbolic or somewhat perverse; I have a feeling that, on the opening night, it was the latter.
As Frank, Ruairi Conaghan manages to keep the uaidnece’s sympathy, no mean feat when what we are watching is a past poet now a reluctant academic (“those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”) de-constructing his own life, his partners’ and then what’s left of his second career. Frank is the sort of man interesting to talk to when sober but profoundly irritating when he’s not and indulging in yet another round of self-pity. All this Conaghan accomplishes admirably.
Danielle Flett’s Rita erupts into Frank’s study as a whirlwind of physical restlessness and verbal overspill. Flett establishes this hairdresser who wants to improve her mind with an intensity which makes most of her first act speeches too much of an accented gabble. The part requires some extremely quick costume changes as time passes and Rita grows out of her restrictive home and work life into one which broadens both her cultural and social existence.
Three and a half-star rating.
Educating Rita runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 13 May with matinées on 27 April and 6 May.