Mon, 17 Feb 2020
Educating Rita at the Oxford Playhouse
Review by Jon Lewis
It’s forty years since I saw Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, a play that became synonymous with Julie Walters, on stage and film. Walters defined the role of the mature Open University student taking a module in English Literature so that she could change her life. Now, in Max Roberts’ touring production from the Theatre by the Lake, the north-eastern actress Jessica Johnson recalibrates Rita, and accent apart, creates a compelling performance that makes audiences care about her character.
Johnson, who shone in Open Clasp’s touring prison drama Key Change at the Old Fire Station in 2016 breezes into the stuffy book-lined office of the ageing alcoholic lecturer Frank (Stephen Tompkinson), the door handle jammed. She punctuates her sentences with a comic neighing that helps Rita overcome feelings of imposter syndrome. Rita’s a working class Liverpudlian,
a hairdresser, married to Denny, hiding the fact that she’s still on the pill so that they can delay having children. She’s desperate for self- improvement, embracing social mobility and youth culture.
Russell’s play speaks to post-election audiences where issues such as culture, social stratification and regional identity have led to a focus on working class aspirations. Rita won’t be pigeon-holed, and Johnson is terrific in portraying a sensitive woman who realises that her tutor is in a worse condition than she is. Frank may be an expert in Blake and Shakespeare, but divorced, and with a girlfriend he prefers not to return home for, he finds solace in a bottle. Tompkinson finds humour in every rumpled movement, his performance excellent in showing the ambiguity of a personal attachment to Rita and a self-destructive behavioural pattern towards his undergraduates.
Educating Rita is a Doll’s House for the late twentieth century. Where Ibsen concentrated on the home life of his heroine, here Rita’s development towards independence is charted by the way Frank’s teaching has taught her to question and justify her thoughts, and her home life. Russell realises that her liberation also needs analysis, as Frank pointedly compares her to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Rita replacing authenticity with a show-off culture that’s equally stultifying. An excellent production.