Reviews Brighton Published 17 July 2012

Educating Rita

Theatre Royal Brighton ⋄ 16th - 21st July 2012

Another brick in the wall.

Tracey Sinclair

Although it’s now over 30 years old, in some ways Willy Russell’s ‘university Pygmalion’ couldn’t be more timely: as we are ushering in a new age where university becomes a financially prohibitive option for all but the blessed few, the quest of one woman from the unblessed many to improve herself is a hymn to transformative powers of education. But while Tamara Harvey’s production is amiable and lively, it lacks bite, and is enjoyable experience rather than a memorable one.

Matthew Kelly is suitably dishevelled as Frank, a university lecturer bored of his life and reduced to hiding his alcoholism by stashing his bottles behind his books (Tim Shorthall’s set design allows for some nice visual jokes on this theme). Kelly captures the world-weariness of a man disillusioned with his own sheltered life, and vividly brings to life both his excitement at Rita’s untrained vitality, but also how that excitement blinds him to her own ambitions. Frank values her naiveté for the breath of fresh air it brings to his life, without ever considering the limitations it places on her own world. Kelly captures this stubborn refusal to recognise Rita’s needs and the fact that, in some ways, he is as restrictive in his views of her as the other people she is surrounded by, who measure out life in terms of babies and nights in the pub.

As Rita, Claire Sweeney is plucky and likeable and brings a real sense of wonder to the role: she’s completely convincing as a woman who would want to shout out during a Shakespeare play, and her transformation – which is visually played out through her wardrobe, a change of style and outfit marking each subtle change as it occurs – is nicely handled.

The pair have decent chemistry – essential in what is a fairly static two-hander, never moving from Frank’s book lined study – but both performances have the same flaw. Crucially, they lack convincing passion, or anger: for all its humour, this is an angry play, one that thrashes against the crippling restrictions of class and money and the blindness of the privileged to the very fact of these restrictions.

Educating Rita is probably Russell’s most autobiographical play (Russell himself was a hairdresser, who struggled to fund his desperately desired further education), so he knows from bitter experience that Rita’s route is not an easy one: and that Frank, for all his intelligence, fails to understand just how tough her choices are, and why she feels the need to make them, even if it means discarding the idealistic openness that he so values in her. He genuinely can’t understand why Rita would be inhibited about turning up at his dinner party – because he simply can’t recognise that she hasn’t been brought up to function in such circles, and that her bonds are no less binding because they are self-imposed. The play is asking us not only to realise that but also to be angry about it: to see that only those born into opportunity can be as casual as Frank about throwing it away.

Without this anger, the production is neutered; it’s a solid and in many ways entertaining production, but Russell’s work deserves much more.


Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

Educating Rita Show Info

Directed by Tamara Harvey

Written by Willy Russell

Cast includes Claire Sweeney, Matthew Kelly




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