Sunday, August 01, 2010

Educating Rita, Trafalgar Studios

In recent times it has become the accepted norm that, at any given time, there will be at least one successful Menier Chocolate Factory production running in the West End.

At the moment there are two in the same building in fact – this, Educating Rita, and the one-woman-showShirley Valentine starring Meera Syal, which together form the Trafalgar Studios’ Willy Russell Season.

The story of Educating Rita is, thanks to the film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, fairly well-known, though here the minor characters are only talked about, not seen, and all of the action takes place in just one room. Frank is a sixty-something university professor of English who spends his days – and the whole play – holed up in his comfy but care-worn office-come-library (lovingly designed by Peter McKintosh), tired of the same routine, bored of intellectual pretensions and very often drunk. Rita is forty years his junior and his first ever Open University student – a brash hairdresser steeped in Liverpool working class culture but, like her new tutor, bored to tears by her current lot.

The great strength of Willy Russell’s play is the relationship between the nurturing, funny university don and his new passionate student, hungry, as she puts it, to learn and experience more than her life, friends and circumstances have thus far allowed. The relationship is endearing in its simplicity –they are just genuinely good people who find much to like in one other right from the off, despite their differences, and who look forward to their tutorials as a highlight of the week.

Their mutual, though very different, quick-wittedness makes for some very funny banter, and you just enjoy watching this process of learning unfold in front of you. It is a process, of course, that is clearly beneficial to both parties; from the moment Rita bursts into the office for her first lesson and immediately makes Frank look differently at a painting he has had hanging on his wall for decades, it is evident that he won’t be the only one doing the teaching.

A two-hander, the play is hugely reliant on engaging performances that make it obvious why these two characters get on so well; it is nothing without chemistry. Tim Piggot-Smith, straight from the excellent Enron, and relative newcomer Laura Dos Santos are perfectly cast in that not only are their individual performances very good but, crucially, they bounce off each other wonderfully. When Frank is explaining the theatrical meaning of ‘tragedy’ or Rita declaring her hatred of Howards Way, the other often just beams. Dos Santos does get a special mention, though, for portraying such a sincere and deep-rooted desire for education, the physicality of her performance showing that the longing comes from her very gut.

Educating Rita is undoubtedly about the important role that learning and knowledge can play in providing people with choices in life. This production in particular, however, also demonstrates how much a friendship – perhaps especially one found in unlikely quarters – can be equally vital, nourishing, and freeing.

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