Educating Rita – Lyric Theatre, Belfast – Review by Cathy Brown
Until March 5th.
It has been over 30 years since Willy Russell wrote Educating Rita, the tale of a young brash hairdresser desperate to change her life through education with the help of her drunken, shambling tutor.
For this production at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, the setting has been transposed, in collaboration with Russell, from 1980s Liverpool to 1980s Belfast, where the hunger strikes and threats of violence loom large over people’s lives. The relocation works well, the Liverpudlian vernacular and black humour being a good match for Northern Ireland and the story of a woman trying to break the conventions of society and forge a better life for herself given an edge due to political upheaval.
Kerri Quinn excels in the title role, capturing at once the enormous vitality of Rita’s language and personality, as well her driving need to transcend it. Throughout the production she blossoms from brash, uneducated wife, to a strong woman with the intellect and ability to live for herself and no one else. Her transformation is played out with subtlety (aided by a few 80s themed costume changes) and it is testament to her performance that the audience does not lose its fondness for her as she makes her bid for freedom, without her past and ultimately, without Frank.
As Frank, slowly deteriorating in an alcoholic fog of apathy and self-loathing, Michael James Ford expertly captures both the ramshackle sadness of a man who has lost faith in everything he believes and the hardness in his heart that won’t allow himself to change. As he slouches round his book-lined study, drinking the spirits hiding behind his classics, he invests the character with a warmth and dignity not necessarily afforded by the script.
Where the comedy belongs to Rita, Frank’s situation is the tragedy, in the classical sense. Like Macbeth, he ‘goes blindly on and on’ towards his own downfall and as the tables turn between tutor and pupil, his reaction to the changes he sees in Rita is both pathetic and touching.
Emma Jordan directs with a quiet force, eschewing cheap laughs in favour of a depth and understanding of the exchange of feelings between her characters and their differing approaches to a new life. As we watch Rita rise and we see Frank fall, Jordan teases out how they have influenced and changed each other until there is nothing more for them to do but move on, either by choice or necessity.
Stuart Marshall’s set is a lovely evocation of a bookish den, representing both a world of freedom for Rita and a shrinking cell for Frank. The use of music is subtle with nice local touches (Van Morrison and Stiff Little Fingers) and includes an inspired use of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the moonlight cleverly illuminating where Frank’s heart truly lies.
Educating Rita may feel a bit dated now, but it is both the sign of a good play and a strong production that we see how little the world has changed that its themes of intellectual and social empowerment for the working classes can be so transferable to a different time and place. The ghost of Pygmalion may hover over Educating Rita but Jordan and her cast bring a freshness and relevance to a piece whose history casts a long shadow.
Willy Russell’s comedy might be a bit worn round the edges, but this Lyric Theatre production brings out the best in the play with a light touch, bravura performances and a heart that is big and brimming.
Starring Michael James Ford & Kerri Quinn
Directed by Emma Jordan
Until March 5th.