Rita's educating Tupele

Class act: Tom Roberts and Tupele Dorgu in rehearsals for Willie Russell's Educating Rita

GIVEN a different path Tupele Dorgu's appearance in Lichfield Garrick Rep's production of Educating Rita this week could have been seen as type casting.

Rita, the star of Willie Russell's 1980 play, is a hairdresser, which just happens to be one of the careers that took a young Tupele's fancy at school in her native Preston.

She said: “When I was little I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a hairdresser. I always had frizzy hair and some of my friends had long straight hair down their backs and I used to want to plait their hair.

But when I got to my early teens it was fairly obvious I wanted to dance and be in musical theatre. You don't think of longevity or as a job. It was just something I always loved, something I wanted to do and I have been very lucky.”

Tupele, who has an Irish-English mother and a Nigerian father, is probably best known for six years in Coronation Street as Kelly Crabtree – which shows the power of television.

She left three years ago and she has been a regular on our screens since but she is equally at home on stage including the West End production of Mamma Mia! and, more recently, in last year's tour of Chicago.

Our reviews of her superb performance in Chicago included:

  “Tupele Dorgu is, to be honest, a bit scary as the leggy Velma Kelly as she puts in a classy performance as the brash double - alleged - murderess. Her lovers probably woke up wearing flak jackets.”

“Tupele Dorgu as Velma Kelly is long limbed and fabulous as the hard bitten jail bird”

Rita is perhaps a little less violent then Velma as the young working class hairdresser who enrolls at the Open University in an attempt to widen her horizons.

It is a role which is a labour of love for Tupele who recently went on holiday to India with her only reading a now well thumbed copy of Willie Russell's play.

Tupele as Velma a double killer with long legs and a short temper in Chtcago

“I normally takes a stack of films and magazines and novels but I just too the play so when I was free, or sunbathing, or travelling or on a plane I was disciplined so if I wanted to read I read the play.”

Rehearsals have been short and intensive, starting on May 13 for an opening on May 31.

She said: ”I love the play. I think it is brilliant. I am a fan of Willie Russell and it is very easy reading. Sometimes I forget I am supposed to be learning it. I just get absorbed by it.

“There is a lot to learn – I have never had to learn so much before but it is the sort of challenge I was after and I am really excited.

Tupele was three when Julie Walters and Mark Kingston first introduced the story of Rita and her alcoholic tutor at The Warehouse in London.

She said: “You don't realize how old it is and that just shows how amazing his writing is, it is still relevant today and is still interesting to us.”

Her co-star Tom Roberts, who is also the producer, finds Russell's dialogue very natural and easier to learn than, say, Ayckbourn's and Tupele agrees to an extent.

She said: “Yes, it does make it easier when it is something you understand. With mine, for example, she describes things to the nth degree with a this and a this and a this and a this . . . so it easier to learn to that extent but it is still a lot of words. She likes to talk.”

There is some common ground between Rita and Tupele in that both have a burning desire to learn.

She said: “is a role I really wanted to do. I mainly left Corrie because I wanted a challenge, I wanted to do theatre, TV . . . I wanted to do lots of different things, play different characters and just have the opportunity to learn.

Well that's one way to get your grades up . . . as rehearsals seem to be going rather well

“There is no way I am not going to learn when I am with an amazing actor like Tom Roberts and Gareth Tudor Price the director. You have no choice but to learn and be better and think about things. I am very lucky to have the opportunity.

“The space is so lovely and so intimate so that will be another challenge, but I like things that scare me a bit.”

This comes after a hectic 14 months or with panto going straigt into rehearsals for Chicago and then straight back to panto.

She said: “It is nice to be doing something different and I feel very privileged. It is a great play.”

While Tupele is Rita, the not-particularly knowledgeable or well-educated hairdresser who signs on for a Open University course in English Literature, Tom Roberts is Dr Frank Bryant, her rather cynical, disaffected tutor.

The good doctor has signed up with the OU as a tutor for the less than noble reason of paying for his rather enthusiastic drinking habit.

Yet the career academic with a jaundiced view of academia and the working class girl looking to move up in the world find they both have to reassess their own views of a world that is not all they thought it was.

The play was made into a successful film in 1983 with Michael Caine as Frank. It made Walters, reprising her stage role as Rita, into an international star and Tupele is a delightful new entrant to Russell's well established academy.

Roger Clarke


Educating Rita runs at the Lichfield Garrick Studio from May 31 to June 22.

Box office: 01543 412121


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