Fringe Box



Stage Dragon: Educating Rita – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Published on: 12 Mar, 2020
Updated on: 12 Mar, 2020

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

By Ferenc Hepp

Little does Frank know the effect Rita will have on his life and career when the working-class hairdresser from Liverpool bursts into his room as his new English Literature student.

Willy Russell’s classic British play, premièred in 1980 at The Warehouse in London and starred Julie Walters and Mark Kingston. It was made into a film in 1983 with Walters and Michael Caine. Now David Pugh presents The Theatre by the Lake production of Educating Rita at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, directed by Max Roberts.

The stage play is for two actors, and in this production, Rita is played by Jessica Johnson and Frank by Stephen Tompkinson. The setting is a typical university lecturer’s room with shelves full of books, some of which hide Frank’s alcohol supply, relied on while he works for the Open University.

Brown corduroyed Stephen Tompkinson as Frank ©Nobby Clark

It is not only the typical academic setting which is a familiar but Frank’s fashion sense, his brown corduroy jacket giving some added authenticity. Rita bursts in with naivety and enthusiasm and an unusual degree of familiarity towards, which rather frightens Frank. He would rather be in the pub and wonders: “What could I possibly teach you…? I know absolutely nothing!”

From the outset, Rita seems to be in charge and dominates the relationship. Johnson brings this sense of nervous energy and determination from Rita’s humble background with great effect, however, the character’s Liverpudlian origin does not totally manifest itself in Johnson’s dialect which strays throughout. This sometimes detracts from the credibility of the character but Russell’s very clever writing and the brilliantly portrayed dynamic between Johnson and Tompkinson allow us to largely ignore it.

Their relationship starts as professional but soon becomes something much deeper, and it is clear that both have something to teach each other, Rita taking Frank’s chair on occasion. Their special bond gradually becomes stronger, forged by an equal amount of laughter, empathy and sentiment.

Aspiring student Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

Plays set in one location, with just two actors, have a tendency to make us look at our watches after a while but this clever script, and the polished performances from Johnson and Tompkinson, allow total engagement from beginning to end.

The play is not completely autobiographical, it draws from Russell’s own experience of attempting to get into further education having left school with, seemingly, little chance of achieving his ambition to become a writer. We are very lucky that he did and that he produced the script for this play which was very well received on Monday night.

This is not just educating Rita. It is educating Frank. It is educating us. The themes are varied and interesting throughout. There is a rather emotional ending and something to make us laugh, to make us think and to be entertained.

Educating Rita runs until Saturday, March 14 and tickets are available via: www.yvonne- or by calling the box office on: 01483 440000.

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