playwright singer/songwriter author news gallery guestbook links whatson

Educating Rita tours the UK with Stephen Tompkinson as Frank, and Jessica Johnson as Rita.

poster

Return to the PLAYWRIGHTS page...

Return to Educating Rita-UK-2019

Frank (Stepe=hen Tompkinson) in the chair

Frank and Rita relaxing

Jessica Johnson sitting down

All 2019 rehearsal photos by Seamus Ryan / Theatre by the Lake
Production photos:
Robert Day

Jessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tonkinson as Frank

Return to the NEWS page...


Jessica Johnson

Return to Educating Rita-UK-2019


 

 

 

Educating Rita 2019

A new 40th Anniversary 2019 Tour starring Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita.

David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers and Theatre by the Lake have announced that a major new stage production of Willy Russell's EDUCATING RITA will tour the UK in 2019. Starring Stephen Tompkinson as Frank, and introducing Jessica Johnson as Rita, the play will be directed by Max Roberts.

The play was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and played at the Warehouse Theatre, London in 1980, starring Julie Walters and Mark Kingston. Julie Walters reprised her role in the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film opposite Michael Caine.

Stephen Tompkinson’s theatre work includes Spamalot, Rattle of a Simple Man and Arsenic and Old Lace in the West End, Cloaca and A Christmas Carol (Old Vic), Art and Tartuffe (national tours).Cast Rita, Theatre by the Lake 2019

Director - Max Roberts
Designer - Patrick Connellan
Lighting Designer - Drummond Orr
Sound Designer - Dave Flynn

A Theatre by the Lake and David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers co-production.

 

Reviews

Educating Rita 2019

BATH

WILLY Russell not only creates unforgettable characters, he also propels us on a journey with them, though their trials and tribulations and the development of their relationships.

in Educating Rita, Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, as Open University lecturer Frank and his eager student Rita, are perfectly cast.

Tompkinson is the world-weary, disillusioned, hard-drinking academic into whose world hairdresser Rita explodes, burning with a desire to be educated.

They handle the subtleties of the changing relationship adroitly, from dependence to co-dependence to independence.

It’s a sort of love story without romance or sentimentality and Russell is the master of the hilarious one-liner.

Johnson gives us a moving portrait of a woman growing in confidence and sophistication, with hesitations along the way, as she finds herself suspended between the restricted working class world from which she is escaping and a new world of enlightenment. She conveys an empathetic mix of fear and exhilaration.

Tompkinson has impeccable comic timing and the kind of face that needs no words to express his emotions. He shows us a man awakened from lethargy by his extraordinary new student and then hurt when his teaching proves so good she grows away from him. But it’s not as simple as that and the changes of emphasis are skilfully handled.

As a bonus there is a particularly appealing guitar soundtrack between scenes, but I couldn’t discover from the programme any further details.
You won’t see a better production of this timeless comedy.

 

THE SWINDON ADVERTISER - Jo Bayne

 

Melissa Blease reviews Willy Russell’s Educating Rita starring Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 8 June

June 1980: the UK was in the grip of a major recession, urban riots dominated the headlines and Educating Rita – commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and written by Willy Russell – premiered at London’s Warehouse theatre. And the critics went crazy…

“It’s a masterpiece examining the concept of freedom, and England’s class system, and the shortcomings of institutional education, and the nature of self-development!” screamed one. “It’s an au courant Pygmalion, based on archetypes from Greek mythology!” yelled another. And quietly, in the background… “it’s just a play about a girl who wants to be a different kind of girl,” said Russell. And, almost four decades on from when a mouthy hairdresser first crashed into a university professor’s office on a quest to become ‘a different type of girl’ to the one she was, Russell’s masterpiece remains as vital, relevant and engaging as contemporary theatre can be.  

In these attention-deficit days, it isn’t easy to keep a two character/one set/150-minute drama captivating throughout. But David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers/Theatre by the Lake’s latest touring production of this enduringly popular revival offers a masterclass in how a really, really good script, two really, really good actors and a really, really good director can make tricksy devices, sensory brace-yourself soundscapes or shock tactics redundant.

As a result, modern day theatrical thrill-seekers who don’t believe that a static, bookshelf-lined set containing little more than a big office desk and a couple of picture windows (through which we can’t see any kind of view) can possibly be a promising backdrop for any kind of attention-grabbing action are about to have their perceptions seriously challenged. While those who think that contemporary analysis of behavioural boundaries, social influence and sociological perceptions of the role of women in the 1980s/1990s cultural landscape began and ended with Pretty Woman need to think again.

Okay, so when Rita first appears, she’s wearing the full-on, clichéd working class woman’s uniform du jour (‘du jour’ being 40 years ago, remember): tight skirt, high heels, push-up bra, the whole shebang. But jaded university professor Frank’s image is equally stereotypical too – and Stephen Tompkinson fits the role as easily as he wears the garb that instantly suggest careworn professor, frustrated poet, jaded academic and wannabe alcoholic: you can almost smell last night’s whisky emanating from his baggy, crumpled clothes; you just know that his ragged grey hair reeks more of yet another disappointing evening down the pub than Pantene.

As the drama rolls along, Frank’s camouflage of arrogance slips off to reveal the vulnerability he’s trying so hard to hide, while his ego turns out to be as fragile as his tenure at the university he’s worked at for way too long; ultimately, Tompkinson delivers a first class performance. 

It’s Jessica Johnson, however, who deserves a doctorate for bringing Rita to buoyant, motormouth life. Exuberant, sharp, loveably lively and thoroughly convincing as the girl-who-wants-to-make-good, her comic timing is superb, her charm congenital rather than clichéd, her attitude and delivery authentically Scouse (and you can take this last endorsement from someone who knows all too well how ‘authentically Scouse’ rolls).

As Tompkinson and Johnson take us on a whistlestop journey through a year(ish) in the lives of two ostensibly disparate characters, the pace never drops, the melodrama never gets mawkish, the authenticity of the situation never wavers. We never know how either of the pair’s lives unfold past the final (subtly moving) scene, but one thing is certain: Rita is far more credible than Russell’s Shirley Valentine, and Frank far, far less syrupy than either of his Blood Brothers. 

Intelligent and funny, sincere and gregarious, Educating Rita is a play for today that must never be allowed to become yesterday’s dissertation.

THE BATH MAGAZINE - Melissa Blease

 

This is an absolute treat. The production from the excellent Theatre by The Lake, directed by Max Roberts, has all the heart and pathos that you would expect coupled with fine central performances from Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita. Both make these roles their own and relish each moment.

Rita is a working-class girl who seeks education and joins an open university course. Her tutor is the heavy drinking laconic Frank whose own midlife crisis has him on a path of self-doubt and disillusion.

The script fizzes with classic Russell wit and observation. The acerbic Frank and the ever-optimistic Rita; clash and rail together yet all their choices come with huge cost. The final scenes never really conclude the piece, and allow them both new beginnings.

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank is a fine weary academic, with hidden bottles behind various novels.  He is endlessly exasperated by his own self-loathing and initial judgements of the uneducated, knowledge hungry Rita.

Jessica Johnson is a vibrant energetic foil to Tompkinson. Her endless quest for betterment is palpable and the sacrifices deeply felt.

A glorious design from Patrick Connellan nicely captures the austere nature of education, the firmly shut windows defying the potential of fresh air and new ideas.

The play has not aged in the slightest. It remains a great piece of work examining the challenges of class in education.

The sense of entitlement and assumptions of others are never far from the surface. Some things hardly seem to change.

THE BATH ECHO -  Petra Schofield

 

Educating Rita, immortalised by Michael Caine and Julie Walters in the 1983 film adaptation, Willy Russell’s part-autobiographical two-man play still sparkles with wit and poignancy almost thirty years since premiering at The Warehouse, London in 1980 having been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Revived at frequent intervals with varying success, I caught the current Theatre by the Lake production at Theatre Royal Bath (until 8th June 2019) as part of an extensive UK tour. Directed by Max Roberts, Stephen Tompkinson is well cast as Frank, a failed poet-come-university-professor tasked with the seemingly uphill battle of transforming dissatisfied and woefully uneducated Liverpudlian hairdresser, Rita (Jessica Johnson) into an academic who understands E. M. ‘bleeding’ Forster and Shakespeare.

Johnson’s portrayal of the outspoken, foul-mouthed Rita, bursting with enthusiasm during her first meeting with Frank, is brilliant in its exhaustive (and exhausting) energy and we can relate to Frank’s apprehension at the prospect of trying to reign her in. As she says herself, if it hadn’t been for the Open University she would never have stood a chance of gaining a degree and insists on Frank’s mentorship when he’s ready to throw in the towel and suggest another tutor.

Having left school at fifteen to become a women’s hairdresser before returning to education and becoming a teacher, Russell’s own experiences inspired both Frank and Rita, while the work as a whole reflects not only the changing attitudes to women, finally encouraged towards professions rather than the servitude of housewifery and motherhood, but also the eduction opportunities open to the working class as a whole, shunned by Rita’s husband who considers her Open University course a betrayal and burns her books accordingly.

Frank on the other hand is the antithesis of someone who has largely taken for granted the privileges afforded by his university education, and, resigning himself to the dissatisfaction Rita is seeking to overturn, comforts himself with alcohol.

Countless bottles of liquor are concealed behind the books lining his room (designed by Patrick Connellan), in which the entire action of the play is set, and we pity the man who could have been so much more. Only Rita can reinvigorate his love of teaching and the literature that once inspired him.

The friendship which develops between the pair is shown in snapshot scenes rippled with humour and reflection. As Frank must choose whether to be swallowed up by his addiction and self-perpetuating despondency, so too Rita (whose real name is actually Susan) must choose whether to break away from her dim-witted, chauvinistic husband and the part of herself she is no longer able to identify with. Frank is meanwhile torn between admiring the courageous Rita and resenting her increasing absence and independence. After all, educating Rita has been about so much more than preparing her for exams.

While the direction, choreography and design are in themselves commendable, the strength of this glorious production rests on the talents of Hopkinson and Johnson, their believable chemistry and the absorbing change we are able to witness in Rita who holds our attention and wins our affection. When she returns from summer school – no longer the ignorant, socially inept mature student intimidated by her younger academic counterparts, not to mention Frank’s circle of friends whom she once feared would ridicule her – she is a confident and intelligent disciple of English literature equipped to debate and challenge Frank on all manner of subjects, much to his surprise and alarm.

When he goes to introduce Rita to William Blake he is disheartened to discover that she is not only familiar with the poet but can recite Songs of Innocence and of Experience at length. Rita, whose infectious spirit and unique perception captivated him from day one, is no longer solely his muse, he has given her the tools to forge ahead alone, leaving him behind to wallow in self pity and continue to make himself the university laughing stock. Forced to take a sabbatical after falling off the rostrum in drunkenness during a lecture, the once non-judgemental Rita who sought Frank’s wisdom, now offers him guidance, although their paths, in the true sense of Shakespearean tragedy, are destined to diverge.

arbuturian.com -  Rebecca Lipkin

 

 

MOLD

 

Willy Russel’s masterpiece needs no introduction for those that have seen the original movie, but this production has introduced a whole new audience to the prestigious comedy that is Educating Rita.

★★★★★

Set in the early 1980s, Educating Rita tells the story of married hairdresser Rita who enrols on an Open University course to expand her horizons. Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker who is less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on as a student, but it soon becomes clear that the two have much to teach each other.

“From a very young age when I read Educating Rita, it gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life.” Jessica Johnson
For those familiar with the story and who may have seen the movie, will understand the power that comes with the simplicity and subtlety of the set. The entirety of the production is played out within a lecturers office which is coated with academic references. The tall bookcases, wooden desk and files upon files are all things synonymous with a university office. This is due to the brilliant work of designer, Patrick Connellan.

Willy Russel’s masterpiece needs no introduction for those that have seen the original movie, but this production has introduced a whole new audience to the prestigious comedy that is Educating Rita.

Set in the early 1980s, Educating Rita tells the story of married hairdresser Rita who enrols on an Open University course to expand her horizons. Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker who is less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on as a student, but it soon becomes clear that the two have much to teach each other.

“From a very young age when I read Educating Rita, it gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life.” Jessica Johnson
For those familiar with the story and who may have seen the movie, will understand the power that comes with the simplicity and subtlety of the set. The entirety of the production is played out within a lecturers office which is coated with academic references. The tall bookcases, wooden desk and files upon files are all things synonymous with a university office. This is due to the brilliant work of designer, Patrick Connellan.

Stephen Tompkinson plays a self-pitying alcoholic lecturer, Frank. His performance brings out two sides of the character. We see the vulnerable, humorous and caring side that just wants the best for his student, but we also get the arrogant, blunt and abrupt side to Frank.

There’s nothing of him in there, there’s no passion, So, to meet this woman with so much passion, he almost wants to run away. She offers him a little bit of a lifeline, and he’s doing the same for her. Stephen Tompkinson on his character, Frank.

For the audience, they’re a pure a joy to watch as the relationship grows and the true personality of the characters are revealed. It’s evident that he needs her just as much as she needs his help.

Jessica Johnson delivers an animated and dynamic performance as Rita, the quick-witted and very opinionated hairdresser who joins the university to better her life and forget her current circumstances.

Of the two cast members, her character development has the biggest impact and goes from a comedic and lively performance to one that packs a strong punch and at times the poignant moments poke through.

Social and class divide plays an underlying role throughout this production. Rita has a low educational background and Frank is in a strong academic field with a rich background. ‘I don’t have any culture’ Rita says. The two contrasting lives at times are strained, but their parallel lives move closer together as the story winds up.

“It’s definitely a love story, they definitely care for each other, she loves him for giving her the opportunities.” Jessica Johnson

Two cast members, one setting and one unforgettable show!

EGWYL MAGAZINE - Emma Tattum

 

5/5 stars – an unmissable revival of a masterpiece
Willy Russell’s script tells the story of a working-class woman, Susan ‘Rita’ White, in her late twenties who enters the Open University in hope to feed her soul and change her life for the better. Her tutor, Frank, is a frustrated poet, disappointed with life and all the inadequacies it appears to provide. His only real passion lies in a bottle of hard liquor, and therefore, when the bold, excitable Rita bursts into his life, he is very much unenthusiastic. However, it soon becomes clear that it is not just Rita who can learn from Frank. He also finds there is a lot to learn from Rita, and as the play progresses, the line between the student/teacher role is blurred.

This much-loved play has been reintroduced into the modern stage by producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers and Theatre by the Lake. However, the play has not been modernised. Instead, it remains true to its roots of the 1980s – yet the hunger of its characters for something better in life is timeless.

Television star, Stephen Tompkinson, plays the role of the uninspired, alcoholic lecturer, Frank. Unsurprisingly, Tompkinson is extraordinary. His ability to switch between the authoritative, arrogant, academic to the desperate, vulnerable, drunk is encapsulating. In the words of Frank himself, life is ‘a rich and frantic whirl’, and Tompkinson is able to grapple with both the riches of academia and the frantic reality of despair in his performance. For Tompkinson, the play is A universal story of two lost souls, mismatched people in terms of character and background who meet at the right time to help each other in life.

What was most remarkable about Tompkinson’s performance for me was the scene nearing the end of the first Act.  Not only did Tompkinson project a fantastic – for lack of a better word – drunk, but the layers in which Frank’s drunken state is attempting to cover his desperation and inadequacy comes through. Anyone can act, but not everyone can create the depth of psychological pain which Tompkinson achieves.

As for Jessica Johnson, well, she is an eccentric burst of energy. From the minute she enters the stage, she steals the audiences’ attention (and Frank’s). Rita’s frantic, uneasiness is expressed through her inability to sit still for long, perching rather than sitting on her seat, bouncing across the stage with each new train of thought. Rita continually refers to education as the tool she needs to be free, yet what she does not realise, and what Johnson projects so well, is the innate free spirit that lets her speak without thinking and move so naturally in any given space. Talking from her own experience with the play, Johnson said that It gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life.

Perhaps that is why her performance of Rita is so raw – not only is she a comic genius, but Johnson is able to capture that ambition Rita feeds off.

The power of this play comes from its simplicity. Two actors conversing about literature and life in just one room. This room is, for those who don’t know, Frank’s university office – a room which set designer, Patrick Connellan, has saturated with academia. The large bookcases topped with overfilled files, the dominant wooden desk, and a less spectacular ‘student’ desk sit as the perfect foundation for cultivating the very complex relationship between the characters.

Indeed, the brazen, uneducated Rita uses the set fantastically. Initially, Director Max Roberts has Rita migrating around the room with no real place. However, as she develops, both academically and socially, she finds a firmer position in no other than Frank’s desk chair. Meanwhile, Frank distinctly descends deeper and deeper into alcohol-fuelled despair, landing ironically in the seat in front of the ‘student’ desk.

The unconventional conversations of literature and haircuts, showered with life counselling sessions encapsulates the complexities of what it is to be human – it’s all nothing, but it’s all very real and very relevant as we search for a greater outcome. Both Rita and Frank undergo life lessons, and while Rita’s is perhaps the more obvious change, her ability to reignite some passion into the hopeless Frank leaves a poignant reminder that none of us are too far away from the possibility of a better life.

Forty years on and this play is still as comic, still as painful, and still as relatable as ever.

WEARECHESTER – JOSIE PENFOLD

 

 

Frank doesn’t have a book-lined study, he has a book littered study. The walls are bare in Max Jones’ impressive circular design, instead there are piles of well-used tomes in no apparent order, though Frank can still find his hidden whisky.

This room becomes an effective arena for the gladiatorial contest between Frank and his Open University student Rita. The two actors in this production are in complete balance. Katie Elin-Salt’s Rita has a thick South Wales’ valley accent which subtly shifts as she gains maturity. Her account of having seen her first Shakespeare play, Macbeth, is overpowering in its vigour and enthusiasm. So too is her reporting of her first OU Summer School but there is now a major shift in who Rita is and how she sees herself.

One of Richard Elfyn’s finest moments comes during this passage as he begins to sense that Rita is moving away from him, followed by the emptiness in his face as she recites and talks about William Blake and he sees that he has missed his chance to introduce her to the poet.

Both actors, helped by Emma Lucia’s discrete direction, create rounded, flawed people. Both are excellent too in bringing to electrifying life the unseen people, partner, husband, flatmate, students, they meet outside the confines of the room.

It’s often funny but this production really succeeds as an emotional drama about growing or staying the same. The two actors create the most convincing Frank and Rita I’ve ever met.

THE STAGE – Victor Hallett

 

It was clear that the production would maintain it’s original time setting, as soon as you entered the auditorium '80s music was playing. The set was made up of mountains of books and was clearly a stereotypical professor's office. I had read Educating Rita but had never seen the film or a stage version, so it was with trepidation I waited for the start. Knowing Willy Russel himself has been heavily involved with this production only added to my anticipation. This was clearly a draw for others too, as considering it’s a Monday evening the theatre was packed. The audience being made up of a mix of people of all ages again attests to the universal pull of his works. I wondered how this production, firmly set in the '80s, would resonate with a modern audience?

As it started we saw a dishevelled professor (Stephen Tompkinson) on stage with a booming lecturer's voice and a clear wit. The jokes came thick and fast and it was not long before Jessica Johnson playing Rita, burst on to the stage. Her energy and vivacity brought a sharp contrast to the apathetic and disenchanted Frank. It was a stark difference but a complimentary one.

The chemistry between the two leads was undeniable, they played their relationship to perfection and brought a power and beauty to the words of Willy Russell. There was a clear paternal relationship that shifted and changed throughout without ever losing the connection the characters possessed.

The set was placed at the edge of the stage, extremely close to the audience. This allowed the audience to feel a part of the intimate scenes. The proximity of the stage was slightly unsettling and made me feel a little claustrophobic but I realised this was the point. Rita feels claustrophobic in her life, trapped by her lack of education and opportunity. Frank is likewise trapped and claustrophobic by the constraints of academia. The fact Frank never left the stage meant you were always tuned into the performance, their was never any let up. This helped you to sympathise with the characters' own journeys.

For the two hours I was fully engaged, both mentally and emotionally with the characters. I cared. I wanted to know which character was right, who I felt had changed, the motivations for the changes, who had ultimately helped who. I needed to know.

Jessica Johnson as Rita gave an excellent performance. Her Liverpudlian accent was a little "iffy" at times but this can be overlooked by the sheer innocence, insatiable drive and joy she brought to the role. This was seen from the constant movement round the stage to the over pronouncements of random words to show her newly acquired knowledge or sophistication. She has a hope that is seen through her constant reaching, whether for books, her hair, or the back of a chair. It is with this subtlety of movement that Jessica Johnson makes such an iconic character her own.

Stephen Tompkinson has professed his love for this character for a long time and it was apparent to see in his portrayal of him. His subtle reactions and bravado brought a real pathos to the role. His drunken stupors were played with humour that still evoked pity and a little frustration.

My wonderings about how a modern audience would react to an '80s play were answered with standing ovations and rapturous applause. This is a play that endures and is still as relevant today, in our times of tuition fees and economic down turn. It plays with our perceptions of education and learning but more importantly makes you care.

I left the performance, having laughed, cried but most of all having cared about the characters and their journeys. This is the beauty of this performance.

Francesca Eager – Number 9 Reviews

 

 

NOTTINGHAM

 

" This touring production directed by Max Roberts and starring Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita has to be the best we’ve seen – ever. "

 

FIVE STARS

Occasionally, in the role of seasoned reviewer, one wonders what it would be like to experience a classic comedy-drama for the very first time. And in the case where there has been a popular film version around since the early 1980s – not to have seen that either. Everything fresh, everything new, each witty line and dramatic moment upcoming completely unknown. One has been on this good earth over sixty years and has seen Willy Russell’s Educating Rita a fair few times in and out of the life of a reviewer. It is an exceptionally good play and holds its pedigree well. It is truly inspiring and very human. This touring production directed by Max Roberts and starring Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita has to be the best we’ve seen – ever. It feels like witnessing an original production for the first time.

Why might this be? Well, the acting is very naturalistic from both Tompkinson and Johnson and this allows the comedy to flow naturally from the drama and certainly not be forced for the laughs. Both actors give us warm, regularly funny and vulnerable characters who are humanly aspirant and deeply fallible. We ache for both of them to be redeemed and individually find ways out of each of their ‘stuck in the rut’ lives. We want to love them and Willy Russell’s story enables us to care about them almost as if they were family.

Willy Russell’s writing still has bite after nearly forty years of the play being written and this production is set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The time period setting is vital as working class people’s experience of finding they have a desire to be educated and to improve their lot in life via the Open University was very different then to now. The Open University experience of today is vastly expanded in its subjects and methods of learning.

Set entirely in Frank’s college office (super set design by Patrick Connellan) the action is episodic and rather poetic in the way that one scene slides into the next through music. The style gives a sense of time passing and helps to craft and map out the journeys each character take as they wittingly and unwittingly aid each other via dramas to points of catharsis. 

On press night at Nottingham Theatre Royal the audience give the actors and production a spontaneous standing ovation in recognition of a job done exceptionally well and virtual master-classes in understated acting from both actors. It’s an education.

Very highly recommended.

East Midlands Theatre - Phil Lowe

 

 

'It might be down to these two actors that this reviewer now believes it's a better play than he once thought' head

It’s a well-known story. Working-class Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita enrols on a Literature course with the Open University. Her one-to-one tutor is Frank, a jaded academic who’s too fond of the bottle. Very broadly speaking, we have the same narrative arc as Pygmalion or even Frankenstein.

Anyone who studied with the actual OU in the seventies will know that this stage OU is not at all like the real thing ever was: it’s terrifyingly unrealistic. But that matters not a jot; playwright Willy Russell uses artistic licence to great effect.

Jessica Johnson is terrific as Rita. For the first few episodes – it’s a highly episodic piece – you might think that, in terms of mannerism, gait, gesture, Johnson is over-playing her character’s comically down to earth vulgarity. But it soon becomes clear that this allows her to demonstrate Rita’s halting transformation into something closer to your stereotypical seventies arts student.

In arguably the more demanding role of the crumpled, declining Frank, Stephen Tompkinson is utterly convincing – it’s the writer’s fault, not his, that Frank isn’t eased out of the job earlier.

Both Tompkinson and Johnson handle their gradual falling into a sort of a love beautifully.

It might be largely down to these two actors that the present reviewer now believes that Educating Rita is a better play than he once thought. It doesn’t patronise the working class. Nor does it glorify all things Liverpool. Instead it touches on such themes as the post-war collapse of working-class culture, and the plight of the married woman enmeshed in it. And it makes explicit the cultural confusion of finding oneself caught in the no-man’s land between two social classes.

Besides all this, Educating Rita is a very funny and entertaining play, with a nice touch at the end involving a comb and a pair of scissors.

Nottingham Live/Post - Alan Geary

 

 

BRADFORD

RITA is sick of singing the same old boozy songs down the social club, and the banal chit-chat in the salon where she works.

But when she enrols on an Open University course, to broaden her horizons, she soon finds herself intimidated by all the confident young students sprawled around the campus.

Stumbling into her tutor’s office, a jumble of bookshelves concealing half-empty liquor bottles, the Liverpool hairdresser feels she no longer belongs back home, but doesn’t fit into the academic world either.

Frank, her jaded, borderline alcoholic tutor, initially has little faith in Rita’s ability to grasp English literature, but gradually the two of them take a quest of discovery and realise how much they can learn from each other.

It is nearly 40 years since Willy Russell wrote Educating Rita, and its themes of class, gender equality and self-expression are just as relevant.

Comedy, pathos and social comment are woven through this powerful, entertaining two-hander, beautifully performed by Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita. Refreshed and re-worked, with a hands-on presence by Russell during the rehearsal process, this is a production for our times, while retaining the sparkling lines of his original piece.

Set entirely within Frank’s study, the focus of the play is on the two performances, and the dialogue, shifting the balance of power between a frustrated academic and an uneducated hairdresser who has initially read little more than a dog-eared paperback potboiler. It was a treat to watch the two actors in action, their quickfire lines peppered with subtle asides and silences.

Tompkinson was terrific as Frank; a dishevelled cynic gradually emerging, with Rita’s encouragement, from his whisky-soaked retreat to return to his writing.
When we first meet Rita she’s hungry to learn, and charms Frank with her simple take on literary criticism. Explaining assonance, he concedes that it is, just as she says: “Getting the rhyme wrong”.

Johnson was a fabulous Rita, gliding from wide-eyed ingenue to confident young woman. Soaking up the books Frank lends her, her cultural odyssey extends to the theatre, where Shakespeare’s Macbeth hits her like lightning. “Wasn’t his wife a cow?” she gasps.

By Act Two, she’s soaring, casually referencing William Blake as if she’s been reading him all her life. She’s swapped the pencil skirt and heels for dungarees and, for the first time in her life, she has choices.

Funny, moving and uplifting, this show is a class act. It’s at the Alhambra until Saturday.

Emma Clayton – Telegraph and Argos

 

In theatrical terms a two-hander is one of the most difficult roles to tackle. Just two actors on stage throughout the entire performance is challenging to even the most experienced thespian, and Educating Rita is one such testing piece. Written by Liverpudlian Willy Russell at the behest of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the new play opened in 1980, and the film followed soon after, with the screenplay also being written by Russell.

This latest production of this evergreen show is touring Britain again and is produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers of Calendar Girls and The Full Monty fame. This time the two stars of the show are the distinguished actor Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and relative newcomer Jessica Johnson in the plum role of Rita. Johnson bounds onto the stage as the Liverpudlian hairdresser who has a longing to be educated and lands in the class of the fading and drunken academic, Frank. The journey that follows will shape the lives of these wildly dissimilar characters, as each face their demons and succumb to the unexpected.

The stage setting is typical of any college tutor’s room, and the opening scene as Frank searches his library, not for his books, but behind his books for his hidden whiskey bottles, is a funny and promising start. This is the only stage set in the play, and it really needs no more as it represents everything that the story encompasses. The longing of an uneducated woman, a hairdresser, though talented in her field, who longs to understand the meaning of literary words. And the educated and literate tutor, who knows everything that Rita wishes to learn, but is too disillusioned by drink to take her seriously.

As Rita, Johnson sports a strong Liverpool accent which fades as her learning grows, and she plays it for all it is worth. Her first visit to Frank’s room after her education has started is beautifully done as she uses newly-learned words incorrectly. It is a fast and clever scene which shows her strong comedy delivery and sharp timing. Russell’s taut script is delivered perfectly, and Johnson’s remarkable self-assurance grows as her confidence solidifies. By the second act the expertise of Tompkinson seems to be a rock that leads and supports her, and towards the end she is a towering presence.

Tompkinson offers up the most wonderful drunk; by rote he is sad, clever, pathetic and lovable, as he turns in an entirely apposite and utterly compelling performance. Shades of his famous Inspector Banks never once hover, as he gives a virtuoso portrayal of Willy Russell’s disillusioned Frank who is finally given a glimmer of hope and pride in himself.

There are many theatre productions today which boast huge casts and numerous scene changes, and many are beautifully done and the numbers on stage add massively to the proceedings. Educating Rita is unique in that it is a one scene, two cast, two hour play, which, if cleverly written and cast with superlative actors, which this one absolutely is, can be a theatre-goer’s dream. I have seen two-handers before on stage, including other productions of Educating Rita, and none have achieved the stature of this production. It grows steadily in interest, assurance and skill as it moves through the story, and the final words and actions are so absolutely right that you can almost hear the satisfaction flow through the audience. It is theatre perfection.

On Yorkshire Magazine - Sandra Callard

 

SALFORD

Willy Russell’s 1980 stage play might well be remembered fondly by the nation when adapted into film in 1983 starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, but this new touring production proves that Educating Rita has stood the test of time for the last forty years and will continue to do so for the next.

Theatre by the Lake, based in Keswick, is known for its in-house repertory productions that play at its picturesque base near Derwentwater. It is unusual, therefore, for them to produce a touring piece of theatre, especially with a high profile actor such as Stephen Tompkinson. However, judging by the quality of this production it is clear that it is going to be an enormous success.

Rita (Jessica Johnson) dreams of a life that is more than working in a hair salon. She has enrolled in The Open University to study English literature and is assigned her academic tutor – weathered and disillusioned Frank (Stephen Tompkinson). On first arriving in his book-laden office it is clear that she is going to need a lot of work: Howard’s End sounds filthy to her and she is more familiar with Yates’ Wine Lodge than WB Yeats, the poet. Frank, a frustrated poet himself, takes on the challenge of educating Rita (whatever the word ‘educating’ might mean) in a play that becomes about self-discovery on both sides on the desk.

Influenced by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Russell subverts the idea of shaping an individual into a particular mould. Instead, Russell celebrates Rita’s uniqueness and refreshing attitude into academia: “I’m going to have to change you!” Frank despairs as Rita begs to learn how to conform. The play stands the test of time because it deals with universals. He superbly, through very funny dialogue, scaffolds a debate about huge topics: the difference between subjectivity and objectivity from differing class systems; the value of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; the value of opinion from different vantage points depending on socio-economic backgrounds; and what culture really is. As heavy as these topics sound they are discussed with such wit that Russell perfectly conjoins form and content in his writing – that is, the dichotomy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are balanced evenly in a play that deals with enormous subject matters yet is still an incredibly accessible piece of theatre.

Frank is a drunk and with ever more bottles of whiskey appearing from behind his books he becomes increasingly dishevelled as the play progresses. Conversely, Rita is flourishing – new friends, a new job and a new appreciation on life leaves her sparkling by the end of the play. And Jessica Johnson sparkles as Rita – warm but with a razor tongue delivering deliciously funny lines. As Frank Stephen Tompkinson is excellent – a melancholic, frustrated artist trapped in academia glimpsing a caged bird he can help to set free. “What’s it like to be free” asks Rita. “Ah … now there’s a question” Frank replies. It is these nuggets of genius that keeps Russell’s writing as fresh today as it ever was.

Educating Rita is a play that delivers a wonderfully rich, entertaining and funny night out but also a genuinely fascinating and intelligent debate into the worth of art and culture as a whole.  It makes an audience question what freedom is, what education is and from what perspective opinions are classed as ‘correct’.

THE REVIEWSHUB.COM -- Jay Nuttall

 

Willy Russell’s modern classic play is brought back to life with energy and passion at The Lowry this week. Possibly one of the Liverpool playwright’s best pieces of writing; made famous by the multi-award-winning movie of the same title, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Last night’s opening performance was a masterclass in connection, relationships and characterisation. Set inside a University professor’s musty, fussy old study; as antiquated as the professor’s love of teaching; the play explores the unlikely relationship of an alcoholic, failed poet, university professor and his working class, scouse hairdresser-cum-aspiring-literature-student who is hoping to gain a degree via the open university despite failing in education thus far. It is a social commentary on aspiration and dreams and class barriers. Like most of Willy Russell’s writing, famed for his social awareness and commenting through social dramas, it explores the themes subtly at times and with a firm fist at others. The play is literally a series of episodic scenes across a period of academic time but it works beautifully without feeling claustrophobic. The light and set reflected time and place, daytime and evening and the changing seasons mirroring the characters changes and growth. The set was a sublime with a huge series of bookcases which hid Frank’s not so secret stash of booze to enable him to get through the day.

Starring film and TV star Stephen Tompkinson as the acerbic, literate wordsmith and guru ‘ Frank’, ‘Educating Rita’ really makes you think hard about the nature of life, learning, education and its value in securing ones place in the social pecking order. Tompkinson is the epitome of the cord-clad, uni professor who has spent far too long locked in a social prison of his own making. Surrounded by his cellmates: whisky, brandy and the spirit shelf, he naval gazes morosely to begin with until Rita bursts into his office and life demanding to ‘know everything!’ A beautifully observed performance as he watches with a controlled bemusement at the fizzy Rita who comes to him expecting him to be some kind of oracle. When it was first written 40 years ago, the notion of the post education adult returning to education and learning and achieving was quite a novel idea. The more absurd notion that a professor would be giving one to one, evening drop-in tutorials with a student even more absurd but this is firmly set in 1979 pre-Thatcherite Britain where everything seemed a possibility. Willy Russell wrote the play with himself in mind as the heroine as he too was a working class hairdresser who returned to education as an adult (becoming a teacher).

Max Roberts’ production is certainly not tired and the quality of the text and the acting breathes new life into it in our 21st century reflective society where we tell our children that education matters most of all. Jessica Johnson plays our heroine ‘Rita’ with aplomb. A seasoned theatre performer, she had energy and gravitas and a very believable scouse accent. It must be very difficult to resist doing a turn as Julie Walters’ iconic Rita but I think that what she did made the role her own. Her character grew in depth as the play progressed and after she leaves her husband that became more apparent. She was feisty to the max and playfully flirted with the bumbling Frank who at points can be seen to be falling under her mesmerising distraction. There were little points earlier on when I felt that Rita was a little too big but that settled as Act 1 progressed. Johnson’s metamorphosis when she challenges Frank on his opinions and choices was spine-tinglingly good and the audience were silent as the stage was electrified with the unspoken emotions going on between the two characters.

The relationship between Frank and Rita was electric throughout. The pace was outstandingly good and the interplay was beautifully honed with micro reactions and the timing was a masterclass. The director has extracted every ounce of humour in this blackly comic play. I felt like we went on a rollercoaster of emotions with Rita as she grew and changed like a flower searching for sunlight and water, hand fed by Frank until we see she realises that she has outgrown the pot and he has nothing left to give and as they fight to let go and say goodbye. I would love to know what happened to Rita once she achieved her pie in the sky aspiration as I am sure many other theatre goers have wondered over the years. A fabulous production with fluent characterisations and precise direction on a stunning set. An absolute must see if you can get a ticket.

 

NUMBER9REVIEWS - Kathryn Gorton

 

Yesterday evening I went to The Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays, Manchester to watch the wonderful Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson star in a new stage production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. It is always a pleasure to visit The Lowry, which I try to do regularly, as it is a modern, comfortable theatre with extremely pleasant and helpful staff.

Educating Rita was first premiered in 1980, but the story of Rita, an intellectually frustrated, unhappily married hairdresser who aspires to further her education and chooses Frank, a brilliant academic with a drinking problem, as her tutor, is as relevant today as it was over forty years ago. Stephen Tompkinson is superb in his portrayal of Frank, who is initially reluctant to teach Rita, but eventually realises her hidden potential. His charismatic stage presence is so great that I was spellbound, unable to take my eyes away from him. As the story develops, he becomes more enthusiastic as he falls under Rita’s spell and then becomes cynical and bitter as he realises that she has changed into a more confident person, no longer reliant on his teaching skills. Jessica Johnson plays Rita with great flair, breezing onto the stage like a vibrant breath of fresh air, tackling her Liverpudlian accent with great aplomb.

The first half of the performance is extremely funny with lots of laugh out loud comedy moments but the second half is very poignant and much more serious as Rita grows in her new found confidence and Frank becomes more shambolic and disillusioned, eventually losing his position at the university, to be shunted off to Australia.

This performance was outstanding – one of the most enjoyable shows which I have seen for a long time. This is an hilarious, heart-warming comedy and I loved every second, leaving the theatre with a big smile on my face.

WHATSGOODTODO.COM – ROSEMARY KNIGHT

 

KESWICK

As Rita bursts into the study of her Open University tutor, you know it’s going to be a great performance of this new production of Will Russell’s great British comedy, Educating Rita writes Karen Morley-Chesworth.

Like rediscovering an album you loved from the 80s and placing the needle into the groove of the vinyl and the magical phrases come back to you, returning to Educating Rita is pure pleasure.

It must be hard for two actors to step into these roles which are so synonymous with Julie Walters and Michael Caine who made the film version of this play so successful – however you feel as if the role of Frank was made for Stephen Tompkinson, and all memory of Ms Walters’ brilliant portrayal of Rita are forgotten as Jessica Johnson explodes onto the set.

To remember the lines from a production you saw 36 years ago shows the impact of Russell’s script. It is so hard to believe the words Rita delivers have been written by a man, they ooze oestrogen. Yet despite knowing what comes next, Tompkinson and Johnson take ownership of this classic tale of a working-class heroine who just wants an education – to give her choices. 

Together, Tompkinson and Johnson make it feel like you are watching a new play. Despite a different political era, this play is as relevant and fresh today as when the film was first released in 1983. 

Today Open University isn’t just for those who missed the university boat in their teens, as student loans make part-time study the only options for many without financial wealth, yet this doesn’t age this piece which makes you laugh and cry at the emotional rollercoaster of two people brought together in the name of education, who change each other’s lives forever.

Tompkinson captures the despair of the educator, growned down by years of giving to his students’ formatted ways of writing about literature to pass exams, rather than focusing on his passion for writing his poetry. 

Johnson as the nieve 29-year old hairdresser who is transformed into a cultured, educated young woman captures the characteristics of each phase of development brilliantly. Her pace and style work in perfect harmony with Tompkinson. Together they are perfectly cast.

Tompkinson acts the perfect drunk, his movements so accurate, the slight slur in speech pitch and pace perfect. This is an excellent portrayal of Frank, a more natural, less pretentious and more rugged version.  

There is real chemistry between these two actors that magnifies the relationship between these two characters, as the balance of power transfers from teacher to student as we progress along the OU course with them.

The production at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick is the first of a tour visiting 11 theatres. I would say get a ticket now, however, in Cumbria, it’s a sell-out (only chance is if you get a return ticket), and quite deservedly too. I’d travel to see this production again, it really is that good.

5/5 stars CUMBRIA 24

 

“Education, education, education" was how Tony Blair set out his priorities as he campaigned to be elected in 1997.

It gave people choices in what they did in life. Opportunities.

Some 17 years earlier, Willy Russell had written almost exactly the same thing in his comic two-hander.

Telling the story of working class Scouse lass desperate to escape life as a hairdresser, she enrols in an Open University English literature course and is teamed up with Frank as a lecturer.

A former poet, he is washed up and washed out by whiskey. He’s taken on the position to pay for all the booze hidden in his book-infested study.

Rita is driven to learn and Frank is shocked and smitten by her dynamism and determination.

Jessica Johnson as Rita is a fizzing ball of attitude and energy, hungry to change her life, whatever the cost.

Stephen Tompkinson is perfect as the careworn lecturer. Best-known for his TV roles, much is expected of him and he delivers, providing arrogance, grace and fragility in Frank.

As she improves, he declines. She rises in self-esteem, he sinks to the bottom of a bottle.
Alongside the jokes there is plenty of social commentary about the despair of the neglected working classes.

As well as it is acted, it is the script that is the real star. It still froths and flows and sounds new and immediate. Perhaps that is the greatest compliment for Tompkinson and Johnson who are a superb team.

The second half is more a powerplay of their personalities and drilling home the message that life is all about choices, choices, choices.

Russell’s play is a feel-good story with lots of laughs and this production, directed by Max Roberts with a fabulous set from Patrick Connellan and co-produced by the theatre, is fresh and relevant.

Its message about education and of the daily struggle of an underclass is still just as valid today as it was 40 years ago.

The run here is sold out. The play goes on tour and deserves to sell out everywhere.

NEWS & STAR (CUMBERLAND) – MARK GREEN

 

Willy Russell’s masterpiece needs little in the way of introduction to the older generation who will probably remember when it came to fame in the early 80s both on stage and in film. This new touring production, currently running at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, stays true to the original but is every bit as fresh and relevant now as it was then.

Stephen Tompkinson is perfectly cast as the brilliant, but over-drinking, Frank who reluctantly takes on an Open University student who calls herself Rita. Equally perfectly cast is stunning Jessica Johnson in the title role who makes a convincing scouser, a woman aiming for 'something more' than the life she has as a married hairdresser. Such was their chemistry that the audience took to applauding many of the scenes as though they were the end of Act one! When the play finally did end, most of us rose to our feet in appreciation that we'd witnessed something sublime.

'Educating Rita' is, at heart, an uplifting comedy which laughs both at working class life and the absurdity of academia. While most good comedies have a poignant moment, something more serious to take away, their aim is entertainment. This was Russell's stated aim too yet from the very opening scene until the final 'clip', as it were, this production is loaded with so much it's hard to know where to begin.

There must surely be few of us who don't find one or both characters resonating with ourselves in some way. Rita is still young but old enough to feel trapped in a culture and lifestyle which is strangling her. She wants 'to know' and is painfully aware how little she understands the things which are considered great - like poetry and theatre. Frank is old and feels a failure as a poet, as a husband and as a teacher. He is morose, finding solace only alcohol, until this strange, wild, yet exciting creature steps into his room. It is the classic Pygmalion tale retold drawing on 'My Fair Lady', 'Frankenstein' and Russell's own life in faultless blend. In the background, Rita's husband tries to control her, and keep her from lessons. But will Frank end up controlling her instead?

I can't help but make personal connections. When not writing what Rita would call 'crap' or reviews like this, my 'other job' is teaching, like Frank. I've seen dozens of 'Ritas' of both sexes go by over 20 years and I understand something of his pride, love and sadness at seeing them grow and then, quite rightly, no longer need your support. I've also seen too many colleagues worn down by the system but unable to do anything else, driven to drink. But I also grew up in the 70s and 80s in a coal-mining town emotionally crushed by the strikes and no longer believing in the post-war dream. Like Rita, I couldn't wait to leave education and then couldn't wait to return to it either, years later. I suspect I was not the only one in the audience to empathise with both characters in some similar way. This is Willy Russell's genius (and indeed a not-so-hidden theme of the play): He forces you to connect. Society may have moved on, but the angst of both characters is still there and their issues are still our issues.

Like Rita, in our youth, many of us wanted something more and yet, over time, come to appreciate what we had - something Frank doesn't quite manage to convey to his student. When it comes to the inevitable conflict between them, who is wrong? Is there a 'wrong'? Rita gets the last word on the matter, and rightly so because that's the point - She wants a voice and a choice. In the end, don't we all?

'Educating Rita' is sold out at Theatre by the Lake I'm sorry, but not surprised, to say. It is touring around the country and I couldn't recommend it more highly; it is worth chasing. Check educatingrita.co.uk for details.

LANCASHIRE LIFE/ THEWORLDNEWS.NET – KEN POWELL

 

MUCH-LOVED actor Stephen Tompkinson is starring in a show at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake this week.

Tompkinson plays the part of Frank in Educating Rita, Willy Russell's hilarious and heart-warming comedy.

It follows the journey of Rita (Jessica Johnson) - from young, fast-talking Scouser hairdresser, desperate to break out of the relentless cycle she has been born into, to an educated woman with an ocean of choices in front of her.

While her trajectory is clearly on the rise and she morphs from giddy girl in lippy, heels and tight short skirts to articulate student in dungarees and DMs, her university tutor appears on more of a downward spiral.

Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker.
The play is set in the tutor’s airless room – you can practically smell the dusty books lining every shelf. He is pretty dusty himself, dressed in various shades of brown, wearing the classic cordury jacket and in need of a good haircut.

His new student is immediately won over by the sheer amount of literary classics in one room. It’s a while before she realises what they are masking.

While they come from different ends of the spectrum in terms of education, class and lifestyle, within the confines of this stifling room they move beyond all that and do a fair bit of sparring but ultimately connect, realising how much they have to teach each other.

It’s an intense two-man play with fascinating characters at its core. There’s cracking dialogue, lots of emotion and humour, which the director and actors deliver beautifully.

There's fantastic energy between Tompkinson and Johnson in this Theatre by the Lake and David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers co-production.

The pair are perfect for their parts and won us all over from the moment Rita came crashing into Frank's life.

TIMES AND STAR – TRACY WALKER – SALFORD

 

 

For 40 years Educating Rita has been a metaphor for the transformative power of education, and the student/teacher relationship. And while this  production is set very firmly back then in 1979, down to the corduroy jacket and the typewriter, Willy Russell’s classic is as fresh, relevant and funny as ever.

Everyone remembers the film version starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, but this is a truly memorable piece of classic staging. What’s new is the bold move to premiere a national tour in Keswick, where discerning audiences have long been fed a rich diet of drama, and a pair of actors for whom this script might have been written, so effortlessly do they take on the roles.

Stephen Tompkinson is an aggressively cynical Frank, the university professor sliding scene by scene into a whisky-riddled existence touched by increasingly bitter humour. “I fell from the rostrum,” he recalls, of a drunken lecture, “but I fell talking”.

It’s a Pygmalion tale of self-improvement, except that Frank doesn’t really want to teach Rita, while she is desperate to better herself. She is Jessica Johnson, the hungry-to-learn Scouse hairdresser whose transformation is both cognitive and stylish, finding her true self as Frank’s role in her education becomes increasingly irrelevant. It’s a performance of fierce passion and defiant humour, revelations lighting up her face and her voice, to the moment of truth about her tutor: “You would rather see me as the peasant I once was.”

But Russell’s script is never demeaning of working class culture, his characters and his insight maintaining dignity with affectionate humour. And he himself has been involved throughout the rehearsal process, working with David Pugh (who was an assistant on the very first tour of Russell’s Blood Brothers in 1985). Pugh and Daffyd Rogers have worked in association with Theatre by the Lake here, with Max Roberts as director.

The play moves next week to Salford’s Lowry Theatre at the start of a national tour, but plays at Keswick until Saturday. It would be a tragedy to miss it, though Frank might take us to task over the meaning of that word. See it, to see what we mean.

STAGEY LADY

| HOME | PLAYWRIGHT | SONGWRITER | AUTHOR | NEWS | GALLERY | GUESTBOOK | RESOURCES | WHAT'S ON | SITE MAP |