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Jessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank. Picture: Robert Day

Educating Rita

Malvern Theatres


Playwright Willy Russell is probably the best comedy writer about social class that we have in the UK and it's never more on display than with Educating Rita.

This intelligent, hilarious yet emotional comedy about female empowerment has some brilliant lines; but as a two-hander, it relies on strong performances by the two leads if it is ever going to work.

This latest UK tour of Educating Rita is a production by The Theatre by the Lake starring astute comedy actor Stephen Tompkinson, of Drop The Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel fame. He plays witty, alcoholic academic Frank opposite the lesser known Jessica Johnson as Rita - a working class woman from Liverpool he is tutoring after she signs up to do an Open University course.

Rita has a yearning to learn in order to escape a life where she doesn't feel she fits in. She's a married hairdresser, who wants to know everything but feels held back by her education, her class and the expectations put on her by her own family.

What unfolds is a relationship of friendship and mentoring where both Frank and Rita have something to offer each other to make their lives feel more enriched.

The drama takes place in a beautifully laid out stage setting of Frank's university office. Walls are lined with the classics - Forster, Shakespeare, Wilde, Chekhov and more - behind which Frank has hidden endless bottle of whisky.

Russell's excellent writing draws in on the novels and poems around them to tie in storylines that relate to Rita's own life while she is studying these works.

While the famous film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine recreated the story beyond Frank's office, this original play doesn't feel restricted for keeping to their weekly tutorials as the dialogue paints such a strong picture in the mind of what is happening in their lives outside this office.

Tompkinson is perfectly cast for this dour role. Deadpan, sarcastic and yet the ability to make Frank charming when at his worst.

Johnson has appeared in TV shows like Coronation Street and Cuckoo but more interestingly for theatre, she won the Performing Artist of the Year 2018 Journal Culture Award for her performance as Angie in Open Clasp Theatre Company's multi-award winning show Key Change.

Judging by this turn as Rita, she is a rising talent as she has an infectious energy and vibrancy about her on stage.

Johnson is superb and has an engaging chemistry with Tompkinson that makes this production so watchable. She's cracked that mix of vivaciousness and self-doubt that make Rita feel inferior and ultimately fall in with a pretentious crowd.

This new production is a reminder of what theatre was made for. It takes Russell's accomplished work and makes good use of it as this Educating Rita is totally engrossing with a fine cast. It's simply a must-see. To 10-08-19

Alison Brinkworth


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