Friday, 28 April 2017

Review Educating Rita

Educating Rita
by Willy Russell

Trading Places

Just think, back in the day Rita could have studied Computing and Batch Processing at The Open University and Educating Rita would have been a completely different play ... 😵

Before the age of the internet, the Open University was a means for those who had left school at 15 and been in work to return to education part time as mature students working for a degree. It used radio and television, as well as face-to-face tutorials, to teach students arts and science subjects.

Rita (Danielle Flett), born circa 1954, probably was one of the 15 year olds who were never considered to be university material and left a secondary modern school to take up an apprenticeship as a hairdresser.

Now the play is even a GCSE school set text so, in a sense, Educating Rita itself has become part of the pathway to university and a reflection of a changed educational hierachy.

Rita has plucked up the courage to defy the scorn of her husband and start an Open University course in English Literature. Frank (Ruairi Conaghan) is the lecturer and frustrated poet, whose profession at the time is one of the few (journalism in that era was another) which also allows him to be a functioning alcoholic.

The Open University wasn't free, but considerably cheaper than going away for a degree, allowing the student to hold down a full time job and study, attending tutorials at a local centre, in this case one of the redbrick universities.

The play is a two hander written just when cuts and increased fees were making the Open University a little less open. So superficially (that's not a criticism)  it's also a nostalgic look back to a more idealistic time.

Director Ros Philips's production transfers the action from Liverpool to Essex which has seemingly a minimal effect on the script - Formby becomes Maldon.

However it may be worth noting Liverpool University was founded as one of the first redbrick universities in one of the major ports of British Empire trade - it's where Heathcliff is found in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Of course it's possible to make Rita a 1980 Essex girl with origins in London's East End and London's docks, but it needs to be carefully thought through.

The performances themselves are workmanlike but somewhat clunky in the first act. We also felt that the middle-aged tutor would have been more awestruck and flustered - even if trying to hide it - when Rita walks into the room. Their physical types seemed to demand it.

Rita is a stunning, sexy, statuesque brunette in her stillettos with legs up to her armpits whom one feels a model agency talent scout would immediately snap up. He is a shorter grey haired and bearded academic, already living with an ex-student after a failed marriage.

So it felt that a misplaced awe of academia had rather overwhelmed the production and that just the merest frisson and awkwardness from the tutor would have made it more convincing. The two actors took a while to relax into their roles,  occasionally over-emphatic and with  some muffled diction.

This also muted some of the offstage action. We  did want the setbacks to seem more of a disaster,  the obstacles higher and the chance of overcoming them to be more in jeopardy in this production.

Still the humour and  transformation of the play work their magic, as does the clever merging of novels and real life which makes an impact, adding depth without the audience needing to catch on to the literary references. Rita's costume changes, always a vital component in the staging of this play, are simple but effective (the Queen's Theatre wardrobe department under Nicola Thomas).

In our times, with the old polytechnics now respected universities and now many more graduates, the attitude of the first half of the play, without knowing the school and college circumstances of 1980 and before, can feel rather patronizing.

But Rita is already a graduate of a hierachical education system. She's probably an 11 plus reject who teachers regarded as not fit for university. To cap it all, she has an offstage obdurate husband who could be a minor character in an Angry Young Man novel of the 1950s.

There may be ways and means of communicating the upheaval in education in the past without interfering with the script, perhaps replacing the 1970s' and 1980s' music inserted between scenes here.

The second act is by far the stronger for Flett's Rita. We  begin to see her mind whirring as the avalanche of new experiences pours over her and she eventually starts to try and separate fact from fiction.

Conaghan has Frank's wry, dry manner down to a tee with the potential for a tinge of academic malice, but he can afford to tone down some of the drunk scenes as someone who has held down a job for years while drinking steadily until an eventual spectacular lapse.

Educating Rita does require a balancing act. It has both a naturalistic quality (naturally exploited in the celebrated movie) and a darker, much less optimistic symbolic thread, both visually and in the text.  Especially with the distorted image of women both as literary characters or, in the case of female writers, as almost inevitably neurotic and/or spinsterish and tragic.

The influence of this body of literature, going hand in hand with how the medical and legal professions have viewed women, gives the play its heft, particularly in the second act. Even to the extent of there being a veiled suggestion that the power of literary fiction may still be a trap, a malign influence or a means of controlling women, while the men escape scot free.

The power dynamics feel rather blunted in this production. Nevertheless,  perhaps we can thank  the female-dominated hairdressing profession, where playwright Willy Russell started out, as well as his experiences as a mature student, for  some of the darker insights and humour regarding professional and personal issues. For a welcome new production, it's an amber light.

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