Culture Editor Emily Breeds visits the Wolverhampton Grand and enjoys a ‘compelling’ production of Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita
Halfway through the play, my notes turned from the actors’ performance to the characters themselves. It was clear that the two actors, Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, had embodied their characters so well that they became real, complex people that kept on revealing more depth. At the end of the play, Jessica was crying after taking on Rita’s complex, intense story. Perhaps that is the power of Willy Russell’s writing. But considering just two actors managed to create such a compelling performance, I must give the credit to them.
Stephen and Jessica absolutely nailed the challenging task of carrying an entire play for two hours. The applause and standing ovation was truly deserved. Indeed, the audience weren’t watching a play, but were looking into a real university office. As all the action took place within that office, outside action had to be created through language, such as Rita talking about her crumbling home life, or Frank talking to his partner, Julia, on the phone (and hilariously breaking the fourth wall by making faces and comments to the audience). This was done effortlessly and realistically, meaning the unchanging cast and scenery didn’t get tedious at all.
However, I will say that it did take a little while for tension to appear. The first few scenes were repetitive, though I suppose it mirrored Rita’s initially meaningless life. When tension did subsequently arise, it was real, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking. Overall, the pacing was very well done. Rita had a nervous energy at the start, chaotically moving on from one topic to another. The second half started joyously and energetically, which I was glad to come back to. Rita was just as chaotic, but this was subtly infused with a new confidence and desire to learn even more.
Rita and Frank bounced off one another, rather than overpowering each other. At first, Rita was a very blunt, surface level character, whereas Frank (in true English professor fashion) used long-winded passages and metaphor to explain what he meant. This was to the detriment of Rita, who asked him why he didn’t just say the simple version in the first place. By the end of the play, Frank also explained assonance as ‘getting the rhyme wrong.’ After being confined by university rules, and the pretentiousness that often comes with university, Rita showed Frank what it means to just appreciate literature because he likes it. Whilst Frank educated Rita on an intellectual level, Rita educated Frank by showing him a different way to see the world. Towards the end, she was the one educating; the staging reflected this by showing her in Frank’s office seat and Frank pacing the room, just as Rita had done in the beginning.
The characters’ oppositions also manifested their class differences. Eventually they reach a mutual understanding of each other, with Frank initially misunderstanding the fact that Rita had to do her essays at work, and Rita being too afraid to join Frank’s dinner party. A lot of the comedy came from Rita’s confusion at classic literary texts and Frank’s subsequent snobbery. However, this may have been because I do an English degree, and the play was supposed to highlight snobbery around literature. What I perceive as a ‘staple’ text might be something completely new and exciting to someone who has never had those opportunities before.
Ultimately, the play is about a woman’s journey for freedom through education. The ending was unexpected, but lovely all the same. I have to admit that I expected it to be a Pretty Woman-type story involving romance, but I was delighted that Frank simply acted as a vehicle with which Rita found herself. One poignant line from Rita to Frank perfectly sums up the play: ‘That’s what you gave me. Choice.’
Educating Rita will continue touring around the UK until 17th August.