(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 June)
The test of a modern classic is that it is as significant for today’s audience as it was when first staged. Willy Russell’s Educating Rita was first produced in 1980 but its two characters – the drink-drowning failed poet turned red-brick university lecturer and his feisty hairdresser Open University student – seem completely contemporary.
Gailie Pollock directs this new Contexture production with a realistic set by Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff at its Rhodes Arts Centre home base. Greg Patmore plays Frank, who really doesn’t want this extra-curricular activity wished on him by a combination of the university authorities and Julia, his increasingly disillusioned partner. He balances the infuriating and the admirable aspects of the character with great subtlety.
She may prefer to be called Rita, but her birth name was the less tempestuous Susan. Gracie Hughes bursts into Frank’s study in a whirlwind of tumbling hair and pointing fingers, prowling around his books and pictures as though determined to make this (to her) strange environment her own. She swirls Rita’s Liverpudlian gabble (which does occasionally tip into gobble) at her reluctant tutor as though it was one of the hair-colour mixes she concocts at work.
Gradually the balance of power shifts through a sequence of short scenes, the passage of time indicated by Paul Burgess’ lighting. It is only after the interval that just how far it has altered becomes truly apparent. Rita/Susan has discovered a new way of life, a fresh circle of friends and a different career path. Frank’s future will follow a different route. Parallel lines have bent to come together, then straightened to diverge once more.
Educating Rita runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 12 June with matinées on 9, 11 and 12 June.