Educating Rita

Written by Willy Russell
Directed by Gemma Bodinetz
A Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse production
Liverpool Playhouse
Till 7th March 2015

Reviewed by Colin Serjent
Photograph by Stephen Vaughan

Within ten minutes of this play opening I was beginning to feel weary of listening to lecturer Frank (Con O'Neill), speaking with a croaky voice, sounding like he smoked 60 a day, with Rita (Leanne Best) adopting a broad scouse accent.

It is not the first time I have expressed this point in relation to productions at the Playhouse and Everyman - why does someone from Liverpool have to possess this type of accent? It is so stereotypical.

First performed in 1980 Educating Rita has dated badly. There was fractious political movements occurring at that time but there is very little reference to the upheavals taking place, save for various images beamed out from a projector disc situated on the ceiling. A more imaginative use of this disc, for example, snippets of documentary footage, would have added an extra dimension to what was fairly dreary fare on stage.

Not having seen the film adaptation of Educating Rita, featuring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, first screened in 1983, I cannot pass judgement on any comparison between that and this stage production. I probably did not see the movie because Caine, the proverbial wooden tree, took part.

in a nutshell - I assume most people know the essence of the story - A middle-aged lecturer is asked to tutor an uneducated young student , who is a hairdresser, taking an English Literature course at the Open University. He only does so to enable him to pay for his drinking.

The two lonely souls form a friendship of sorts and both spill out their frustrations with life upon each other. Frank is a failed poet while Rita has an unhappy marriage - her husband is increasingly jealous of his wife wanting to educate herself. She learns to write essays and quote from books, including William Blake, in Frank's large study room, surrounded by shelves upon shelves of books rising up to the high ceiling.

I found this unimaginative backdrop increasingly claustrophobic as the play progressed. Enough to put me off going to the library for a couple of weeks!

Increased wisdom is not only attainable from reading endless books. Look at Frank - he is a voracious reader of books but not of any so-called 'great working -class writers.' but he ends up disheartened, with a major drink problem, to such an extent that he hides bottles of spirits behind books of particular authors.

Younger people in the audience may not appreciate the importance the OU used to serve to people who could not gain entry to university via the conventional way of obtaining appropriate A level grades. People could and still combine having a full or part-time job with studying for an OU degree.

I am a great admirer of Best, particularly in Unprotected at the Everyman and The Matchbox at the Playhouse Studio, but her role as Rita did not enhance her standing as an actress. It was too one-dimensional.

As for O'Neill, who, like Best, was born in Liverpool, I found it difficult at times to decipher what he was saying due to his husky voice, sounding like he had laryngitis.

There was no charisma or chemistry surrounding the two of them during the two plus hours they were present on stage.

I would have preferred a new adaptation of Educating Rita set in the present day, encompassing the wholesale changes, often not for the best - working class people are even more excluded from participating at universities than ever before - rather than this period piece of theatre.

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