reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 5 September
Writing a play about women is one thing. Getting inside a woman’s psyche, mind and soul – her all-roundedness – is quite another. Willy Russell is one of the few playwright’s who accomplishes this feat, as the 2017 autumn touring revival of Shirley Valentine makes clear.
Jodie Prenger carries this story of the middle-aged housewife talking to herself and to a glass (or two) of wine while she prepares her husband’s evening meal. There have been few highlights in her marriage, and these are more likely to revolve around her children and the other women in her circle than her husband.
So she seizes the opportunity offered by her friend Grce to share a two-weeks Greek holiday – and to hell with responsibilities. Director Glen Walford, who commissioned the first production of the play, knows it inside out and has brought a woman’s intuition to its realisation.
Amy Yardley’s largely representational first-act set is tansformed into the cerulean skies and sea of a Greek island with dark rocks and crags. They suggest the headless remains of giant maternal goddess statues, all welcoming lap and enfolding embrace.
Prenger herself merits her standing ovation at the curtain-call. Shirley’s repressed personality bubbles over as she comes to her holiday-trip decision and finds its price-paid acceptance when she is finally in a place she can feel is a real home, not just someone else’s stomping ground.
My one niggle is that, for those audience members unaccustomed to the Merseyside area accent, not all the first-act dialogue is easy to follow – you miss the punch lines trying to work out wht was said in the preceding sentence. There were times when I yearned for surtitles…
Four and a half-star rating.
Shirley Valentine runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 9 September with matinées on 7 and 9 September.
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.
(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.
(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 21 July)
Willy Russell’s two-hander, about a hairdresser and her (reluctant) Open University tutor is deceptively simple at first glance. Rita starts off all brass and attitude; you’d think that Frank has a point in feeling that this is all a waste of her time and his. But who is educating who? And for what?
Like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Educating Rita explores where education as a pursuit of knowledge in its own right comes slap up against the requirement to pass examinations. Perhaps it’s because I recently saw a production of The History Boys that the parallel struck me as it hadn’t done before.
Desmond Barrit’s production is dominated by Melissa Clements’ incandescent Rita, bursting into Frank’s study in a whirl of scarlet with jingly earrings and a voice fit to split logs. Paul Lavers as Frank has to work hard to equal the balance as our sympathies veer from one character to another – and back again – as this East End butterfly learns how to escape from her cocoon.
Frank, of course, is his own worst enemy, relying on copious draughts of scotch and varying layers of female support to get through what has become a dead-end job. The sequence of short scenes is punctuated by minimal pauses indicated by lighting changes; the excellent design (as for all the plays in this summer repertory season at the Little Theatre) is by Kees Van Woerkom.
Educating Rita runs at the Little Theatre, Sheringham until 28 July. The summer weekly repertory season continues until 5 September.
Tucked away on the north Norfolk coast between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Cromer (think of all those delicious crabs and lobsters for which this stretch of coast is renowned) is Sheringham. Under Debbie Thompson its Little Theatre is a thriving concern, though suffering from the usual funding crises.
The programme for this year’s summer repertory season has been announced. It was preceded between 1 and 6 June by a fund-raising production – most appropriately – of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The 55th summer season itself opens on 21 July with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, directed by theatre patron Desmond Barrit; the cast includes Paul Lavers. That runs until 28 July.
Between 30 July and 5 August the mood changes with that classic thriller The Late Edwina Black, a wife who seeks revenge from beyond her deathbed. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce from 7 to 18 August is directed by another of the theatre’s patrons, Nicky Henson. The comedy Perfect Wedding by Robin Hawdon is the penultimate production between 20 and 29 August.
Another classic, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, brings the summer season at the Little Theatre to a close from 1 to 5 September. It is directed by the third of the theatre’s patrons Peter Craze.