REVIEW: Educating Rita flows with humour and charm at Royal & Derngate

The vast array of books adorning the shelves of the set of Educating Rita cleverly manages to shrink the Derngate stage to an intimate space.

By Sarah Becker
Saturday, 31st July 2021, 9:24 pm
Updated Saturday, 31st July 2021, 9:26 pm
Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson starred in Educating Rita
Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson starred in Educating Rita

It's the perfect setting for Willy Russell’s brilliant comedy, Educating Rita, which arrived in Northampton last week as part of its 40th anniversary touring production.

Originally played by Julie Walters and Michael Caine in the 1983 film version, the playscript was adapted by Willy Russell and retains his brilliant comic lines.

A two-hander taking place in one room, or as the INXS song lyric suggests: “Two worlds colliding…” in one space.

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We are introduced to two characters, Frank (Stephen Tomkinson), a frustrated university lecturer and a drunkard, and Rita (Jessica Johnson), a working-class hairdresser, Frank’s latest student, who wants to learn all about literary classics and broaden her horizons.

The play is told through various scenes which all take place in the one dusty, gorgeously-lit, book-filled setting.

Could this well-worn claustrophobic space be a metaphor for Frank’s disillusionment with his academic life?

The only changes that take place in the physical world are Rita’s different outfits as she blossoms and changes, Frank remains the same.

However, the real changes occur in the pair’s relationship.

Stephen Tompkinson plays Frank, consumed by his drinking habits, with skill and sensitivity, and Jessica Johnson is charming as the loquacious Rita, who manages to infiltrate the world of academia she so desires to become a student.

The characters discuss class and education and as the play unfolds, the audience see how both help improve each other’s states of mind and attitude towards life.

The theme of apparent upward mobility is as thought provoking today as ever and raises questions about the desire to enter into worlds that promise greater happiness.

In the end, despite their obvious differences, the actors sensitively help pose the question, does the transformative power of human relationships help humans change their lives for the better?

A stimulating, charming evening, Educating Rita poses questions that are relevant today.