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Educating Rita at the Menier chocolate factory 2012

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Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney in Educating Rita 2012

Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney in Educating Rita 2012

Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney in Educating Rita 2012

Claire Sweeny and Matthew Kelly in Educating Rita at the Menier Chocolate Factory 2012

Willy Russell and Tamara Harvey

Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney in Educating Rita 2012

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Educating Rita 2012

Claire Sweeney at the Edinburgh Festival 2012:

'It was always my dream to play Rita'


Claire Sweeney has been trying out for Educating Rita practically her whole life. “For the first audition I ever did to get into drama school I did a piece from it. And I’ve said to any director I have ever worked with that if they ever did the play to think of me. It was my dream to play Rita.”

Well, finally Sweeney’s wait is over, as she has spent this year taking over Willy Russell’s iconic role in his Eighties answer to Pygmalion, arriving this month at the Assembly Theatre.

Claire Sweeney and Matthew kelly in Educating Rita 2012

It is a brave actress who steps into the shoes Julie Walters made so masterfully her own in the Oscar-nominated 1983 film. Yet Sweeney has been winning rave reviews in the latest revival of the play, and for more than her native Scouse accent. Thumbing her nose at those who would write her off as a soap star and reality TV celebrity, the 41-year-old has brought her own stamp to the part of the frustrated housewife, despite this being only her second non-musical theatre role.

“There was prejudice in the beginning and I was terrified, but Willy Russell is the whole reason I got into theatre as a child. He is a god to Liverpudlians.”

Meeting me in a greasy spoon near her home in central London on a grey morning, the butcher’s daughter from Toxteth is like a blast of Liver Bird sunshine, talking 10 to the dozen. Having worked since she was 14, Sweeney is at pains to stress this was not a conscious move to be treated as a “serious actress”.

“I’m a fatalist: I’ve never had a career plan. I didn’t do this because I thought Rita was a more serious role: I think musical theatre is as credible as any other kind of theatre. I did it because it is a great role.”

Sweeney does seem to have knack for being in the right place at the right time. Her role as Lynsey Corkhill in Brookside in the early Nineties started off as a cameo that turned into an 11-year leading part. More than any other long-running drama, the Liverpool soap proved to be a breeding ground for performers who went on to prove their acting skills, including Ricky Tomlinson, Sheila Johnston and Anna Friel.

“Brookside didn’t have as many viewers as Coronation Street and EastEnders, so we were less exposed. You were never typecast. Phil Redmond [the show’s producer] wasn’t afraid to give local people a chance.”

In pre-Twitter troll times, Sweeney says she still had to deal with the harsh glare being in a soap brought. “Jim Shelley [the Mirror TV critic] compared to me Hitler once. I was shocked and it really upset my mum, but I think if you stick your head above the parapet you’ve got to be able to take it.”

In an age when women make up over half of higher education students and are expected to have careers, Rita might be in danger of seeming irrelevant, but Sweeney argues its themes are eternal.

“It is every woman’s story. Everybody wants to better themself and to have a sense of freedom. I don’t think that has changed at all.”

Playing opposite fellow TV star turned stage actor Matthew Kelly, Sweeney says that unlike the film, the theatrical two-hander (now updated by Russell) throws more emphasis on the relationship between the student and teacher.

“The play is much darker. He has created a monster whom he has fallen in love with and then she just goes off and leaves him.”

The Telegraph - Bernadette McNulty