rita and frank

Jessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank

Educating Rita

Wolverhampton Grand


It’s 39 years since Julie Walter’s Rita first stepped on stage into Frank’s office, before today’s Rita, Jessica Johnson, was even born, but such is the quality of Willy Russell’s writing, Educating Rita could have been written yesterday.

It is a play about class, about identity, about education or lack of it, social deprivation, but above all it is a love story between two lonely people.

We have Frank, a dishevelled, disinterested alcoholic lecturer in English at some northern University, Liverpool we expect, as that is Russell’s literary stomping ground.

Stephen Tompkinson plays him to perfection. Here is a man wallowing in self-pity and deprecation, a once published poet with a failed marriage behind him and a failing relationship heading the same way. He despises most of his students, has a library with what appears to be books and, discretely hidden, bottles in equal measure. His study is a refuge, somewhere to pass the time until he can go to his second home, the pub.

He takes on the role of Open University tutor purely because he needs the money to help pay for his booze bills.


Frank, dishebvelled, cynical and usually becoming the worse for wear as the day rolls on

So, into his life comes Susan, a Liverpool hairdresser who hates her customers and who calls herself Rita, a decision, you suspect, being a defiant show of individuality. Johnson is just superb. Her Rita is a motormouth, words coming in torrents, flooding Frank with her ideas, her questions, her thoughts. She wants to know everything about everything, and she wants to know now.

While Frank hates most of his students, Rita stirs something inside. She has unbridled enthusiasm, a thirst for knowledge and despite living in working class drudgery, she is full of life – his breath of fresh air.

She has a determination to become educated despite a husband who seems to see education as a disease and merely wants her to produce children, and no doubt make his tea, like what wives are supposed to do – a marriage that is a battleground to a husband who eventually will throw her out.

In their regular sessions we find Rita devouring books, plays and poems like a literary black hole while Frank is being forced to face up to what he has become. He even starts to moderate his drinking, starts to take an interest in literature, even contemplates writing again.

That is until he sees that an educated Rita is starting to take on the shallow pretentions of the academics and students he so despises. The down to earth, tell it as it is Rita has been left behind, replaced by the pseudo intellectual Susan causing the reawakened, re-motivated Frank to retreat back into his wallowing defeatism and booze – culminating in giving a lecture in a tired and emotional (as a newt) state.

rita study

Rita, full of life with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge

While Rita finds that she no longer fits in with her working class family and friends, yet does not feel accepted by the University crowd – she is, as she says, an Alien.

Russell cleverly covers contemporary themes such as the failures of schooling and education. Rita is an example, a bright child missing out on education because of peer pressure, not wanting to be different from her mates.

It looks at identity, at the class system, even the way accents are perceived such as when Scouser Rita arrives one day with a forced posh accent declaring: “As Trish says there is not a lot of point in discussing beautiful literature in an ugly voice.”

It is all wonderfully acted, holding the audience from start to finish on a marvellously detailed setting of Frank’s book cluttered study from Patrick Connellan and with a beautifully paced direction from Max Roberts. Drummond Orr adds sympathetic lighting to the mix.

We end with both Frank and Rita finally realising what they have achieved and, perhaps, discovering or at least rediscovering who they really are. In a way they have each helped the other find themselves. Rita has passed her exams and has been invited to the South of France by a group of students, Frank has been banished to Australia for two years as punishment for his drunken behaviour.

But as we said at the start, at its heart Educating Rita is a gentle love story. Rita’s course and Frank’s work are both finished, so what happens next? Is it their final meeting, a parting of the ways, or the start of a new chapter, further education? Who knows? Russell cleverly leaves that one for you to decide at the end of a wonderful evening of theatre. To 13-07-19

Roger Clarke


Between scenes (sound David Flynn) are some lovely acoustic guitar tracks including the iconic Angie from Davey Graham. According to WillyRussell.com the track listings are Canadee-I-O, Nic Jones; Planxty Davis, Nic Jones; Gowans are Gay, Johnny Dickinson; Angie, Davey Graham; Arthur McBride, Paul Brady; and Lakes of Ponchatrain,  Paul Brady.  

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