In 1980, Will Russell's seminal play about a Liverpudlian housewife who wanted to improve herself, Educating Rita, made its debut and set its leading lady Julie Walters on the road to stardom.
And now, thirty-five years later, Rita returns to Liverpool with this anniversary production at the beautiful Liverpool Playhouse from director Gemma Bodinetz and starring two great alumni's from Merseyside theatre, Leanne Best as Rita and Con O'Neill as her professor, Frank.
I was determined to catch this one, having been a big fan of the play ever since I sat up and watched the film late one night as a teenager. I well recall being so taken with it that I borrowed the text of the play from the library later that week (and, being a bit of a green young boy at the time, I was surprised to find that, on the stage, it consisted of just one set and two characters!) So I booked my ticket well in advance for a matinee this afternoon, bagging myself a front row seat.
Under the astute direction of Bodinetz and with the superb playing of Best and O'Neill, Educating Rita proves itself to be an evergreen piece that can rightly be lauded as one of the best, most popular plays of the last century. A spirited and occasionally electrifying revival, the tone was set as we waited for curtain up with music from the late 1970s and early '80s (including educationally themed tracks like The Boomtown Rats I Don't Like Mondays, Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall Part II and XTC's We're Only Making Plans For Nigel) being piped through before designer Conor Murphy's ominously hanging 'camera obscura' proceeds to show a flurry of archive footage compiled by Jack Offord and accompanied by Peter Coyte's score which again secures what we are subsequently about to see as occurring in the early 1980s.
The camera obscura then slides up to form the ceiling of the play's sole set; Frank's book lined and well stocked (booze wise) study. It's a great semi-circular set from Murphy that both suggests the vast world Rita wishes to embrace as well as the comfortable rut or prison Frank shelters within and allows the two performers to prowl it and take ownership of it at various key moments. The impressive ceiling/obscura depicts the passing of time showing bright blue skies or crimson red evenings which compliment Mark Doubleday's subtle and assured lighting direction and scene changes.
I was keen to see what Con O'Neill would do with the role of Frank having been an admirer of the actor for some time. But equally, I was aware that whenever I hear Frank, I hear Michael Caine from the 1983 film version of the play. This did prove a little bit of a problem as, surprising myself by how familiar I am with the text given I estimate a good many years since I last watched the film, I kept pre-empting some dialogue coming up in my head during some scenes. It's obviously a very different performance, but it's one that is just as good and just as right for the play. O'Neill injects a twinkly, often child like glee to Frank's whisky soaked mischief and laconic wit that Caine never truly capitalised upon, making him a touch more spry and impish, but equally he plays the poignancy of the part extremely well. This is especially and subtly touched upon in several costume changes (shout out to Jacquie Davies, costume supervisor here) It's generally a given to see Rita transform from loud and feisty to considered and almost bohemian, but what this production does is reflect Frank's own feelings towards Rita in how he dresses; at the start of the second act for example, when the character eagerly awaits Rita's return from Summer School, O'Neill's Frank is smartly dressed, hair slicked and combed and as bright eyed as an excited child at Christmas. That the Rita returning is no longer his Rita (yet a Rita his imparted knowledge has created) is subsequently depicted by a more dishevelled looking O'Neill at their next meeting.
The themes of give and take are key to Educating Rita and the two hander approach is perfect for it, allowing both actors the chance to shine as their characters see-saw emotionally in reply to one another. Leanne Best as the titular lead gives an astonishing and cannily superb performance, easily adopting the coarse Liverpool accent and the appearance of the 'cultureless' all bright colours and skin tight trousers, before subtly modifying her playing of the part to reflect each steady step towards freedom and knowledge that Rita undertakes. Like O'Neill, it must be hard to step out from the shadow of Julie Walters but, if anything, Best bests her by presenting a more believably Scouse crimper than Walters managed. It really is a great performance from Best, sparky and sharply timed, she brings the house down on several occasions proving that the city of Liverpool still knows a Rita when they see one. She feels utterly real and authentic to us throughout. But perhaps best of all for Best, she's supported by an incredibly generous and warm O'Neill who, as the stalwart returning to The Playhouse, has nothing to prove.
The play rattles along at a great pace that never once feels like its two hours and received a warm and favourable appreciation from its audience. Like many a matinee audience it was a little predisposed to the grey pound and I found myself sat behind a gaggle of women in their early sixties who chuckled and commented throughout. It's the kind of thing that may normally put me off, but given that Rita is a reflection of just such people I found myself envying their freedom to express in their moment the enjoyment they felt rather than the solitary quiet appreciation I naturally had. Interestingly, the play also brought me up rather short as I realised perhaps how much the young me must have taken from the character of Frank; several of his witticisms, the acerbic nature and his general manner chimed deep within me as I realised I have subconsciously aped and built upon these traits from him over the years to my own personality. It was only when seeing it in the flesh, after some time since I last saw the film, that I realised that to be true. So, just as everyone in Liverpool knows a Rita (including myself) I can perhaps say I know a bit of a Frank when I look in the mirror. Thankfully, I hasten to add, I don't include his alcoholism there!
But the resonant air of the play does not end there; it would be nice to say that the social divisions Russell captured back in 1979 when he first put pen to paper no longer existed now. That we no longer judge people on appearances, accent, education and personal taste. But we do, class and social inequality is writ large once more as recent reports about working class talent disappearing in stage and screen prove with Julie Walters herself remarking that she wouldn't stand a chance starting out now - and let's consider that Rita today would need around £5,000 just to start her OU course! All these things make Educating Rita just as relevant, just as vitally important now as it was thirty five years ago. To paraphrase a moment from Russell's script, we haven't found a better song to sing, we're still singing the same one.
But at least with Educating Rita, its got a bloody good beat.