An honest display of bittersweet realism
The classic Willy Russell play, Educating Rita, is currently being performed at the MAST Mayflower Studios in Southampton. As both a production and experience in itself, it certainly has a lot of expectations to fulfill after such a long time away from live theatre for many people. Fortunately, Educating Rita does not disappoint.
First to comment on the atmosphere at the MAST. Everything feels clean and organised, with helpful signposts and friendly staff to ensure a careful but carefree re-entry to the world of live theatre. Entering the dark auditorium felt like the first time and, in the case of Educating Rita, we as an audience are hit with the unique fragrance of aged books and bound leather. Smell is not often utilised in live theatre, so it was quite an immersive experience of becoming part of the set. The audience too become novels, sat with their still pages watching the unfolding of the character’s relationship.
The story is that of Rita (Jessica Johnson) and Frank (Stephen Tompkinson), a Liverpudlian hairdresser attempting to try her hand at academia and a university scholar who is quite disinterested in helping her improve her knowledge. We see the months go by from the meetings in Frank’s office; there are break-ups, holidays, new friends, and lots of drinking. We see two people passionate for literature and learning, but with completely different relationships with it. As Rita improves her essay skills and becomes more confident in herself, Frank falls deeper inside himself, trusting his stash of hidden booze to qualm his uncertainties about his own life.
Both Johnson and Tompkinson excel as their characters, keeping each joke light and each argument fast-paced. Their comedic moments are endearing, which contrast suddenly to the tense and dramatic disagreements. They each are able to inject comedy beyond the script, leaving treats along the hour and a half for the audience to ingest. The only real issue I personally found was with the styling of Frank’s hair, though unfortunately that was pertinent to the character’s journey. Johnson and Tompkinson are able to really show the tale of two unlikely friends and their influence on each other, as well as successfully treating any literary academic in the audience. Personally, as an English student, I felt heard and understood, and actually learnt quite a lot on how to improve my own critical skills which was an unexpected addition to the experience.
While Educating Rita does not appear directly to be a comedy (there are many raised voices and tough topics for the characters to work through), it is Russell’s charm and wit within the script itself that lends to a comedic viewing. Each line is perfected and quintessentially Russell and, while it might not leave you keeling over in your chair, you will definitely leave satisfied. Educating Rita‘s superb script allows for understanding as to why it is still so popular, and this talented cast of two bring a new level of personality to each scene.
Educating Rita is being performed at the MAST Mayflower Studios from 20th-24th July 2021. You can access information about the performance and tickets here.