Review: Educating Rita at York Theatre Royal

This is a 40th anniversary production and it is interesting to see the changes that time has brought to our evaluation of the play. I was astonished by the quality of this production and encourage you all to see it. It is a far cry from the Michael Caine/ Julie Waters film.

By Angie Millard

The situation is that a hairdresser feels there is more to life than the beauty industry and begins an Open University degree in her spare time. Her tutor is Frank: a disillusioned, middle-aged professor who would never normally come into contact with someone like his new student. She comments that ‘Howards End’ sounds like a dirty book and calls Lady Macbeth a bitch but he is fascinated by her mind.

When I first saw it, I was interested in the concept of someone with a totally open mind meeting academia and not being cowed by the situation. Rita is refreshing, bright and unspoiled. She speaks her mind and expresses herself unselfconsciously. Only naivety could have brought her to Frank’s door. What she meets there is eye-opening for them both. Frank is self-assured, lazy and judgemental but Rita’s brand of intensity and hunger for knowledge opens his eyes. Tompkinson plays the dishevelled, rather bored tutor who is looking forward to his next drink. His job is part of the Education factory and he does not expect to be challenged or stimulated.  Jessica Johnson manages to turn the stereotypic Liverpudlian, wise-cracking character into something new. Rita shows Frank that life is worth exploration and along the way we learn much about the problems she encounters in a stifling marriage.

Over the intervening years I have been made aware of class and education more keenly. Access to university courses has been opened up and the lack of formal qualifications is no longer a bar to achieving a degree. But I have also seen the demand for further education cause universities and colleges to make money through fees and accommodation bringing them into the grubby world of commerce. Once the student becomes the customer the balance of power changes. This play celebrates the meaning of education.

Eventually, Frank realises what Rita has become and in a spine tingling exchange he calls on her to be the brash woman who answered the question about the problems of staging ‘Peer Gynt’, by saying ‘I would make it a radio play’. She answers that he has made her change and as a result she now has choices.

Tompkinson creates a multi-layered character and as he moves from one hidden bottle to another we discover many facets including that he is a talented poet. He progresses through the play offering books and ideas but never actually teaching Rita. When she writes an essay on ‘Macbeth’, it is a description of a personal revelation and Tompkinson hugs it to him while at the same time, telling her it is worthless as an academic essay. Once she has learnt the jargon and use of critical comment he despairs of the person he has lost.

The set is a realistic book-lined study which becomes their world. Johnson moves around it winding herself around chairs and desks restlessly. As her confidence grows she becomes more poised and still, while he grows more agitated.

In the final scene, she makes physical contact with him for the first time; she asks him to sit in a chair, hugs him then produces her scissors to give him a haircut which will take ten years off him. The tenderness of that last moment is very moving. The director has a vision and a message: education is still the great leveller. But it was a message delivered with much thought-provoking humour.

Educating Rita is being performed at York Theatre Royal until 4 September 2021. The director is Max Roberts. Set and Costume design are by Patrick Connellan. Lighting Design is by Drummond Orr. Sound design is by David Flynn. The play is produced by David Pugh and is a Theatre by the Lake production.