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Educating Rita, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre - review

By Alison Norton | Theatre & Comedy | Published:

Willy Russell’s hard-hitting comedy, Educating Rita comes to the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre this week, bringing laughter and tears in equal measure.

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson star in Educating Rita

The playwright has that rare ability to blend sadness, sentiment, passion and humour together in order to produce outstanding passages guaranteed to stir emotions and provoke thoughts on often controversial or little discussed subjects.

His female equivalent is probably Carla Lane of Butterflies fame, who is also from Liverpool, so maybe it’s a Scouse talent? Who knows, but Russell’s compositions never disappoint.

The obvious comparison is the 1983 film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, both of whom won awards for their performances as Rita and Frank, but in fact the work was originally a highly successful stage play which premiered in June 1980 at The Warehouse in London.

Tompkinson and Johnson ready in front of Wolverhampton Grand

Susan, or Rita as she prefers to be known, is a working-class lass from Liverpool, hell bent on improving her social and educational skills, who takes an Open University course in English Literature. Enter Frank, a drunken, depressed, middle-aged lecturer who is less than happy about taking on a student who he has already decided is a waste of space and time.

But, Rita’s humour, determination and personality are so strong that during the course of their year together, their relationship grows and they have a profound effect on each other.

The play takes place in one set, a chaotic university study, and Patrick Connellan’s design should be applauded for its effective simplicity, while Drummond Orr’s efficient lighting effects makes for slick movement between the respective time periods of the scenes.

The play runs at Wolverhampton Grand until July 14

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This is a two-hander and so the need to engage the audience from the off is imperative. No disappointments here, as Jessica Johnson in the title role allows her character to grow and evolve during the course of the play and offers a superbly natural performance, raising smiles one moment and then pricking tears in your eyes the next.

She rattles through the wordy, complex dialogue with ease, although at times her accent makes it difficult to catch every line, but there is no doubt the role is one of her best. Her comedic timing and energetic flow makes it a thoroughly amusing, enjoyable performance.

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank is as outstanding as you would expect from a prolific actor who is completely at home in both straight and comedy roles.

Frank is in fact a mixture of both, with a dark alcoholic side and witty, droll aspects of his character which emerge as Rita’s personality makes its mark.

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Tomkinson perfectly portrays Frank, banishing all memories of previous actors in the role out of sight. He is surely one of this country’s best actors, both on screen and stage.

Educating Rita is ultimately a play about the British class system, women’s place in society, and emotional attachments, but mostly about friendship and respect. It’s unmissable.

Alison Norton

By Alison Norton
@AlisonNorton

Theatre critic and unofficial 'am dram queen' for the Express & Star and Shropshire Star

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