REVIEW: Educating Rita @ Gala Theatre, Durham

Posted on April 6th 2017 by Whats on Northeast

Words: Andrew Bramfitt

Educating Rita, written by Willy Russell, is the tale of a working class hairdresser striving to break free from her everyday existence by taking an Open University course in English Literature. Her tutor, Frank, is a long in the tooth, cantankerous and alcoholic lecturer whose disdain for the modern approach to learning is only bettered by his hatred for an empty bottle of scotch. Indeed, Frank only agrees to take an Open University student on in order to pay for his bottles of booze. Yet, very quickly he sees in Rita a freshness, an unsullied mind and an unpretentiousness that challenges his jaded and tainted outlook on life.

As a play, this two-hander is solely performed from the confines of Frank’s study. It’s set with bookcases, piles and piles of volumes and copious bottles of “hidden” scotch, yet even the simplest of props (the study door, the waste paper bin, the flower vases) are all cleverly used to create a richness to the interaction between student and teacher. Brilliantly directed by Rebecca Frecknall, you aren’t so much drawn into this world as sucked headlong into it, enveloped so deep I could swear you could taste the dust and smell the must.

Playing Frank, Patrick Driver (Silent Witness, Call the Midwife) gives a masterful appreciation of the abject resolution that at some point in life “is this it?” seems to be the most oft used phrase, even if it is in self-denigration. Challenged by Rita’s unbridled hunger to learn, he portrays both tutor and father figure with equal amounts of paternal care and longing to be young again. Indeed, Driver brings a lot more of a father figure to the role than merely a university lecturer. The journey he takes us on is akin to a parent watching their offspring move from wide-eyed 13-year-old starting out in secondary education (and asking questions about everything) to the know-it-all 18-year-old who sees their parent as merely a hindrance. However, his frustrations towards the end (and the increased drinking that accompany them) are not borne from Rita’s changing attitudes so much as Frank’s inability to accept his work is done.

Rita (or Susan as is her real name) is played by local actor Jessica Johnson, and boy have we got ourselves a star in the North East. The original Rita was a Liverpudlian, broad scouse, but Jessica’s portrayal is all North East and it’s testament to her delivery that the character is all the better for it.  The way Jessica uses her accent and dialect, the machine-gun delivery and the typical convoluted journeys that we love to take people on when trying to recount a simple event felt like being wrapped in a warm proggy mat. Her outwardly brash attitude, which belies a delicate and vulnerable core, was there for all to see and so well balanced that her whole performance was magnetic.

Huge kudos to the Gala for producing an amazing piece of theatre and a real treat; congratulations to director Rebecca Frecknall and her team for a fabulous evening, and a perfect example of why the Gala Theatre has so much to offer.

Educating Rita runs at the Gala Durham until Saturday 8th April. Find out more on the Gala Theatre’s website.

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