The Liverpool Playhouse, Educating Rita. Photo Credit: Dan KenyonThe Liverpool Playhouse, Educating Rita. Photo Credit: Dan Kenyon

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Rita at th Royal Shakespeare Company

Educating Rita ay the Liverpool Playhouse. Phto Credit: Dan Kenyon

Leanne Best. Educating Rita, Liverpool Playhouse - 2015

Con O'Neill, Educating Rita Liverpool Playhouse. 2015

Photo Credit: Stephen Vaughan

Con O'Neill as Frank.

Production Photos:
Stephen Vaughan

Leanne Best & Con O'Neill - Educating Rita Rehearsals -® Brian Roberts

Leanne Best & Con O'Neill - Educating Rita Rehearsals -® Brian Roberts

Con O'Neill. Rita Rehearsals -® Brian Roberts

Willy Russell. Rita Rehearsals -® Brian Roberts

Rehearsal Photos: Brian Roberts
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Read previous reviews...

Educating Rita: The Film...

Educating Rita: The Story of my Life...

 

 

Educating Rita...

 

The Play

Commissioned by the RSC and directeRita at The Donmard by the late Mike Ockrent. First performed at the Warehouse in June 1980 and then transferred to the Piccadily Theatre in September the same year. 

It was then produced at the Liverpool Playhouse in February 1981 in a production which marked Willy Russell's first venture as a director.

The RSC production ran in the West End for two and a half years since when Educating Rita has never been out of production somewhere in the world.

"I wanted to make a play which engaged and was relevant to those who considered themselves uneducated, those whose daily language is not the language of the university or the theatre. I wanted to write a play which would attract, and be as valid for, the Ritas in the audience as the Franks." Willy Russell 
 
Con O'Neill and Leanne Best in rehearsals
Leanne Best and Con O'Neill during a performance

 

Three decades ago the Liverpool Playhouse staged the first performance of Educating Rita outside the West End.

Now, in 2015, Willy Russell’s iconic story returns to the same theatre, with the Whiston playwright’s blessing and with a Liverpool dream team taking to the stage to play Rita and Frank.

 

Leanne: " I've always wanted to play her. Always. "
Con: " I’m more of a Rita than Frank. It’s funny, because Gemma’s (Bodinetz - the director) and Leanne’s and my background, we’re all working class and being able to, or allowed to, pursue careers in the arts. So there are three Ritas in the room, which is a fascinating thing. "

 

 

 

Leanne Best and Con O'Neill during a performance
" ...it is a play that speaks to countless generations, and it would be completely unforgivable if you didn’t book seats during the remainder of its run. "

 

Reviews

 

Willy Russell's play gets a spirited revival in Liverpool
five stars

Willy Russell – loitering discreetly at the back of the auditorium on press night – was inspired to write Educating Rita by his own educational experiences and aspirations.

And while Julie Walters might have been the first physical embodiment of the gloriously gauche, academic naif some 35 years ago, at heart Rita’s spirit remains that of her creator.

Saying that, during rehearsals for the Playhouse’s current – often electrifying – revival, actors Leanne Best and Con O’Neill both described themselves as Rita, and suggested director Gemma Bodinetz was a little bit Rita too.

And perhaps in our hearts all of us have a touch of that hope, expectation and spirit – however bruised, battered and buried it may have become.

Still, only one person at a time can play Russell’s feisty hairdresser housewife, whose thirst for learning leads her on a rollercoaster ride of self-discovery, and it’s difficult to imagine a better realisation of Rita than Best’s.

The Liverpool actress proves once again why she’s one of the most exciting talents currently out there. She’s simply luminous as the brash Liverpudlian crimper who demands more from life than pub, perms and babies.

In fact, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on stage.

The play’s early scenes are dominated by Rita’s relentless flow of consciousness, and with Best firing on all cylinders and then some, it takes a while to start to appreciate the quietly nuanced work O’Neill puts in in the less showy role of cynical middle-aged career academic and functioning alcoholic Frank.

Their early encounters are a near meeting of minds, a case of two people divided by a common language.

But this is as much Educating Frank as Educating Rita, and as she blossoms, so does O’Neill’s weary academic, his interested piqued, his enthusiasm reborn.

Both transformations are signposted through incremental changes in appearance, with Frank reaching his peak at the start of the second half when, hair combed, shirt pressed, and eyes bright and sparkling, he welcomes Rita back from summer school. Only to decline into dishevelment once more as he realises the monster he’s created.

Big ideas – class, choice, change, freedom, escape – are explored in the claustrophobic confines of Frank’s cluttered university office, realised by designer Conor Murphy in a spectacular, tactile set – a continuous crescent of bookshelves, stretching from floor to ceiling, where ‘knowledge’ is all around.

That knowledge, in solid form, is tantalisingly close for Rita, who declares she want’s to know “everything”. And for Frank, the books are a protective carapace, and a hiding place – from the outside world, from difficult decisions, and of course a real hiding place for his heroic collection of scotch.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s moving, and Bodinetz keeps the action clean and crisp right up until the final moments where there’s resolution of sorts and a glimmer of hope, if not a happy ever after, for the play’s protagonists.

What more could you ask for?

Liverpool Echo – Catherine Jones

" ...words can barely do justice to Best's performance - suffice it to say she was born to play the role. "

 

Educating Rita - 'enchanting'
four stars

Imagine going to Hamlet knowing next to nothing about the play, or about Shakespeare, for that matter - it surely can't be done, not in these information rich days. Back in 1979, however, Willy Russell magically conjured up such a scenario, with his heroine Rita experiencing Macbeth completely cold.

Though Educating Rita is known for its comedy, by the end, in the world according to Rita's tutor Frank, it is also a tragedy: a man who was a gifted poet is, after a brief renaissance, doomed, hell-bent on the path to self-destruction (or, more accurately, Australia).

Leanne Best excels in this final scene but while she deals adroitly with Con O'Neill's infatuated alcoholic Frank, his apparently calm acceptance of her new-found academic confidence does not ring quite true. His petty jealousy has previously erupted in a comment about Mary Shelley, knowing Rita now fully understands the cruel allusion.

But this is nitpicking, because right from the start, the audience is in for a treat. Conor Murphy's set is damn near as breathtaking as the first view of the magnificent Picton Library: a tome-lined, almost tomb-like chamber; hidey hole for him, a whole new world for her. It's dominated by a low, tilted circular ceiling-cum-screen, which is somewhat under-used; after a whizz through 1970s images, there's just a close-up and details from a painting Rita admires.

One of the most impressive things about this perennially popular play is that it is manages to grip the attention using a solitary location, thanks to Russell's remarkable, sparkling dialogue. Rita - passionate, determined, and goodness, so brave and funny - is a completely enchanting heroine. It helps of course that she is so attractive, in her trendy clothes - yes, even for the 70s. Frank meanwhile is stuck with his cardies, a kind of monochrome uniform.

And for an erudite man, whose pupil is bewitched by her muse, he should know a lot better as the roles shift. Harking back to Pygmalion and Galatea, Rita is far more than raw material to be moulded, or indeed, owned. Initially, she feels she has neither the mind or the language to express her feelings and thoughts; similarly, words can barely do justice to Best's performance - suffice it to say she was born to play the role. Meanwhile, O'Neill almost eradicates thoughts of Michael Caine's performance in the film version.

There was, of course, a standing ovation - for the actors, director Gemma Bodinetz, Willy Russell, and for Liverpool. Tickets have nearly sold out, so make sure of yours.

One of the most impressive things about this perennially popular play is that it is manages to grip the attention using a solitary location, thanks to Russell's remarkable, sparkling dialogue. Rita - passionate, determined, and goodness, so brave and funny - is a completely enchanting heroine. It helps of course that she is so attractive, in her trendy clothes - yes, even for the 70s. Frank meanwhile is stuck with his cardies, a kind of monochrome uniform.

And for an erudite man, whose pupil is bewitched by her muse, he should know a lot better as the roles shift. Harking back to Pygmalion and Galatea, Rita is far more than raw material to be moulded, or indeed, owned. Initially, she feels she has neither the mind or the language to express her feelings and thoughts; similarly, words can barely do justice to Best's performance - suffice it to say she was born to play the role. Meanwhile, O'Neill almost eradicates thoughts of Michael Caine's performance in the film version.
There was, of course, a standing ovation - for the actors, director Gemma Bodinetz, Willy Russell, and for Liverpool. Tickets have nearly sold out, so make sure of yours.

What'sOnStage.com - Carole Baldock

 

four stars

What’s not to like about Willy Russell’s Rita? She’s only a Liverpudlian hairdresser but she’s got a lust for living and a love of learning. She’s teacher’s pet on her Open University English Lit course, until she gets ideas of her own. And ever since she was first incarnated in 1980 by Julie Walters, then reincarnated on film, who knows how many people have discovered their inner Rita after watching her find freedom through knowledge yet still remain true to her working class self.

Unlike the Menier Chocolate Factory’s 2010 slimmed-down version paired with Shirley Valentine, Gemma Bodinetz’ production presents the full Rita, which makes the whole play more engaging and also reveals how much its undated charm depends on its incredibly sophisticated construction. It also highlights how the transference of cultural and intellectual power between Rita, moving forward in life, and her trapped tutor Frank rests so heavily on a bubbling chemistry between the two actors.

Leanne Best sparkles as street-smart Rita, appearing to undergo a physical transformation as she discovers the joys of William Blake and learns that cultural snobbery has nothing to offer. Con O’Neill’s Frank is well drawn too - an alcoholic beardie who’s happy playing the pedagogue but turns increasingly morose as his protege inevitably flees his academic cocoon, with Conor Murphy’s spectacular shelving design literally encasing him in bookishness and booze. Perhaps their shifting relationship could improve with more dramatic light and shade. Overall, however, Rita’s latest journey back to her Liverpool roots both entertains and educates.

Verdict: Willy Russell’s Rita passes her latest test with flying colour.

TheStage.com – Roger Foss

 

 

Leanne Best and Con O'Neill during a performance

 

 

Educating Rita is an iconic play that needs very little introduction. From stage to screen and back again, it’s a timeless story of wanting more from life than just settling for the hand we’ve been dealt. For the unfamiliar, it is a comedic masterpiece that effortlessly elicits a torrent of emotions and has us finding ourselves again and again in the characters on stage.

Rita (Leanne Best) is a strong willed hairdresser with a desperate thirst for knowledge. Unable to continue with the pretence that she is satisfied with her lot in life she enrols on an Open University course, and wants to learn “Everything”. This is how she crashes into the life of her tutor Frank (Con O’Neill), a failed poet who finds more solace in the bottles stashed around his office than he does in the company of others.

Best is an electrifying triumph that crackles with energy as she all but dances around the stage. She begins the play as a bruised woman, someone who has been pushed down by the threat of babies and unceasing boredom, but emerges triumphant much to our delight. Her energy is contagious to the audience, and unfathomable to Frank who would much rather be sat down at the local pub.

Con O’Neill really comes into his own in the second act, when Frank’s cynicism takes a turn for the darker. It is in these moments that you can’t look away from the stage. His brooding melancholy is both unforgivingly relentless and beautifully tender. O’ Neill and Best are the perfect duo, both bringing out the best in one another, their roles seem written for them, and them alone.

Director Gemma Bodinetz has given us a play that feels like so much more than solely takes place on the stage. It is honest, brave and hilarious. It’s a play that feels perfectly balanced and satisfying, the kind that you feel exited by when you leave the theatre. The set itself is remarkable. Designed by Conor Murphy, it is multi layered and fascinating – A safe cocoon for Frank, a site of liberation for Rita. It is a joy to look upon.

Back in Liverpool for its 35th anniversary, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita feels as urgently vibrant as if it had been newly printed. Exploring themes such as class, choice and self-imprisonment, it is a play that speaks to countless generations, and it would be completely unforgivable if you didn’t book seats during the remainder of its run.

ThePublicReviews.com – Vicki Goodwin

 

The further we move away from a time in history, the more it seems to resonate with us in the present. In 1979 the social climate of the country changed, events and news from around the world started to mould Britain in a way not seen since the start of the Second World War and the pace of life altered, stagnation, alienation and guilt in some quarters, not enough in others, became a new breeding ground to hit people with a terrifying new stick with. Yet somehow, as if in rebellion to this flowering want, great music started to reflect the times once more and the mood of education was to be heard in many a great rock and pop song and into this world Willy Russell’s Educating Rita was born.

Everybody knows a Rita, its impossible not to know someone who doesn’t feel anything for the usual conversation that they have grown up being part of and who wants to change their perception on life, someone who yearns to understand; who faces ridicule and scorn for daring to believe in something new, even years after leaving the education system. Conversely, many people might know a Frank, that singular person who can inspire greatness, a flowering of potential even in the most unlikely of knotted weeds, but for whom themselves the world has become jaded, torn, worse still, beige and unexciting. Together though, as proved once again in Willy Russell’s wonderful play, they can bring out the good in each other, they can breathe different air.

In Con O’Neill and Leanne Best, the Playhouse Theatre bulged in the immensity of two actors who have become part of the fabric of Liverpool’s theatre world and Liverpool life. As with a solo production, in a two hander there is no hiding place for the performer who sits in the shadows, it requires great personal adherence to the job at hand. Like a Wimbledon final, its more memorable if the players presented before the crowd are evenly matched and who give everything, blood, sweat and tears, to the audience. 

In Ms. Best and Mr O’Neill, this was simply as perfect as an audience could dream for, a play that hits home time and time again with its themes and in Con O’Neill was born to play the disillusioned tutor.

For Gemma Bodinetz, once again the production spells out what a boon to the city of Liverpool this talented woman is. As a director she is perhaps arguably one of the most eagerly looked forward to people who can sell a production on her name alone, let alone a superb cast or indeed a thunderbolt of a play. In Educating Rita, that dedication to the play is everywhere; it seeps through the cranny of every word and the nook of every apostrophe and bursts into life right before the audience’s eyes.

Following on from such plays as the Everyman Theatre’s opening production of 2014, Twelfth Night and the likes of Juno and the Paycock, A Streetcar Named Desire and the fabulously interpreted trilogy of plays penned by poet Roger McGough including The Misanthrope, Gemma Bodinetz warms the heart with Willy Russell’s auspicious 1979 play.

Educating Rita is as pertinent and significant today as it was in 1979. The thought of more mature student facing up to the fact that they want to escape the route laid out before them and at times feeling so overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, is just as important to the fabric of society as those with youth on their side and whose minds are more used to the system.

Educating Rita still hits home, that education is the most important aspect to a person’s growth, no matter the form it comes in.


Liverpool Sound and vision.co.uk – Ian D Hall

 

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