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Theatre Review: Educating Rita ****

Scott Purvis reviews a new production of 'a very funny and very relevant play'.

Since the demolition of Brookside Close and La Mort du Cilla Black, tours of Willy Russell's plays have preserved him as something of a lord protector of Liverpool's cultural identity. Despite the surprising fact that he hasn't produced a play since the mid-eighties, this Scouse Shakespeare's sometimes comic, sometimes grim social commentaries of Thatcher's Britain chime uncomfortable resonances ten years into austerity - it might be forty years since The Boys from the Black Stuff appeared on TV but the North/South divide remains as sharp as a Liver Bird's claw.

Although it was written in 1980, Max Roberts' production of Educating Rita remains a very funny and very relevant play. It charts the rocky relationship between Rita, a working-class Open University student, and Frank, her assigned English tutor, a man whose love for Whitman is only slightly bettered by his love for whiskey. Trapped in the dusty world of academia, the rough diamond who wants to "know everything" becomes a breath of fresh air in Frank's musty existence. But as Rita learns the difference between her Aristotle and her Baudelaire, her reliance on Frank diminishes, leaving the depressed dean clinging to the bottle instead of her hand.

Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson carry the two-hour two-hander effortlessly. Their chemistry bubbles like flirting in a science classroom and is marked with moments of genuine warmth, love and paternity. Tompkinson's turn as Frank bears a certain vulnerability, proof that an ancient anthology of poetry won't teach you about life what a 9 to 5 job will. In a costume smelling of damp corduroy, his poise, gait and manner bear the well-observed snootiness of academia, holding up the marble columns of class snobbery as the performance slowly buckles under their weight.

Tompkinson's rolling RP is the perfect foil to Jessica Johnson's endearing Rita. She bounces around the stage in a fur coat, refusing to be broken by the class conventions which would doom her to a life cooking her husband's dinner. The performance grows in assurance throughout, fed on a diet of Chekhov and Ibsen, and Johnson's withy, loveable and sparky performance is a class battle which refuses to go down without a fight.

Simply staged, Patrick Connellan's set will make any university student nostalgic for afternoon tutorials in the high-towers of academia. Lined by books and books and books, the realism of the set allows audiences to focus on the naturalism of the script and its characters. Its lighting and style is perhaps a little too straightforward to catch the drama of the play's climax, lost amongst the ordinariness of the everyday.

Does it matter? Not really. Educating Rita is a treatise on the power of education to both elevate and alienate, a crisply-directed and genuinely funny piece which offers light reflection on the obstacles to social betterment designed to disadvantage swathes of society even now. The play doesn't have anything particularly new to say beyond that but, like a witty supply teacher that doesn't stress themselves too much with learning outcomes, it'll still make audiences laugh loudly.

Runs at the Royal in Glasgow until February 29th, 2020 before continuing its tour.

Tags: theatre

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