The current production of Willy Russell’s classic play Educating Rita at Theatre on the Bay unexpectedly hit a nostalgic nerve on opening night. It was time to relive the early 80s. Oi vey!
Educating Rita the film was released in 1983, just three years after the play was first staged, and it was a massive hit. It starred Julie Walters (who had performed in the stage version) as Rita White, a 29-year old married, working-class hairdresser, and Michael Caine as Prof Frank Bryant, an English Literature lecturer.
Those were the days of Diana, Princess of Wales. Actually, one of the most memorable and funniest scenes in Educating Rita is of a heavy-set woman who takes a seat at Rita’s station with a magazine cover displaying a picture of Princess Diana with beautifully coiffed hair. “I want to look like this,” she demands. We all know how that ended!
Diana was on every poster and in every magazine. The glamour and style she exuded were the envy of every young girl and woman. Of course, it also made a great impression that she, a part-time kindergarten teacher, had found her prince. Romance and possibility permeated our lives at the time.
Rita (Zoë McLaughlin) wants to improve herself and registers for an English Literature course at the Open University. She is placed with Prof Frank Bryant (Jason K Ralph), a functional drunk who hides his tipple behind the classics on his bookshelf and his emotional problems behind a gruff exterior.
The story follows the course of their relationship and shows how education changes Rita’s life, but also how her spontaneity and joie d’vivre have a huge influence on Frank’s life. There is, of course, some sexual tension between the two of them, but the story carries a more important message – the strength of women when they really set out to achieve something. The same is true of his other hit play, Shirley Valentine, which was recently presented at Theatre on the Bay.
Director Paul Griffiths puts some brakes on the bawdy tone Julie Walters used to such great effect, so McLaughlin’s approach to the role is more natural and less in your face. Ralph’s drunken episodes as Frank are also less overt than Michael Caine’s portrayal. The script is outright hilarious yet one is constantly aware of Russell’s empathy with Rita. In fact, in an interview Russell relates that Rita’s character is actually autobiographical. He was also a hairdresser and after getting only one O-level, he returned later to complete his education.
McLaughlin is an excellent actress and she is perfect for this role. She was nominated for a Fleur du Cap award for her stunning portrayal of Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act when she was only in her 2nd year, and from her current work one can relish seeing her talent coming to fruition. It is an exciting prospect seeing her in more such roles.
She is a good match for Ralph, the more experienced of the two, and together they make this two-hander shine. Ralph brings great comic timing and a well-crafted intensity to his role, reminding one of his performance in Fugard’s Exits and Entrances and as the nasty Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. He is really an outstanding character actor and one wishes he would be given more opportunities.
Two aspects of the play bothered. The first is that Griffiths has his actors seated with their backs to the audiences far too often and in some instances there was blatant masking and bad sightlines. It is difficult to determine why it was done, since it denies the audience the opportunity of seeing the actors’ responses when they are in conversation. Sometimes it was difficult to hear them clearly when seated like that and Jaco Griessel’s set felt even more claustrophobic then. Words are particularly important in Russell’s plays for the sake of wit and narrative. Too much was lost as a result of the placement of the actors.
The second is that the actors were wearing microphones, which puzzled one. Theatre on the Bay does not have a big auditorium and both actors are trained, so projection would not have been a problem. It felt like an inhibitor instead of a helpful device. Perhaps it was done to accommodate the original score by Jonathan M. Blair, but the music was never intrusive or overly loud.
Educating Rita has dated a little since it first saw the light, but it is heartwarming to be reminded of a time when one’s greatest concern was to have a haircut like Princess Diana and to renew one’s subscription to Royalty Monthly for more pictures of her for one’s wall.
The short run of the Tally Ho! Productions presented Educating Rita ends on Saturday 15 July 2023, so do not delay popping in at Theatre on the Bay for an 80s nostalgia shot. Tickets available online through Webtickets.