Theatre Review: Educating Rita at Bradford Alhambra

On national tour again, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, stopped in Bradford where Leo Owen caught the show

Designer Patrick Connellan’s set is a beautiful and extensive book-lined University lecturer’s office with whisky strategically hidden behind its literature. Open university student, Susan (AKA the show’s titular character, Rita) comes in, hungry for knowledge, directly contrasting with the aptly named Frank (Stephen Tompkinson), a failed poet, and now cranky professor.

Bittersweet classical guitar interludes and dimmed lighting bridge the gap between scenes. Props and costume are true to the play’s original setting with Rita’s (Jessica Johnson) costume changes reflecting the passing of time and her new-found independence. In direct opposition, Frank remains wearing the same tired clothes throughout, symbolising how trapped he has become and unwilling to change.

Contrasting energies between the two leads result in charismatic dynamics as we watch the growth and development of their relationship, gradually shifting from Frank’s active aversion to delivering open university sessions to his genuine warmth for Rita and co-dependence. Solely based in Frank’s office and comprised of a series of mini tutorials rich with literary references, Educating Rita depicts admiration and jealousy in direct competition as Frank clearly begins to relish Rita’s visits more than she does; all this expertly portrayed by two exceedingly strong leads who have a phenomenal amount of lines to remember.

A bitter conversation in Act 2 is fraught viewing, watching a blossoming and once warm relationship deteriorate as Frank cruelly says literary criticism on Rita’s lips is “bitter, shrill and pointless” while Rita loyally retorts “[pre-education] I wouldn’t have been able to understand and recognise the allusions… I can see you now.” That said, Russell’s play is full of cheeky humour too, almost entirely courtesy of Rita. In one of their earliest conversations Rita observes, “Howard’s End – sounds filthy, doesn’t it?”

Emotionally charged, following a neat cyclic structure and exploring so many of the themes Russell is famous for (inadequate educational systems, cultural/class differences and stereotypes), Educating Rita is an everyman play, philosophising that resilience and free will are life’s greatest tools, empowering all to embrace life’s greatest gift: choice.