A night school class to enjoy

 Educating Rita

Malvern Festival Theatre

****

EDUCATING RITA is probably best known from the 1983 film starring Michael Caine that shot Julie Walters to international fame.

In this touring Chocolate Factory production the character of Rita is played by Claire Sweeney, already well known to the audience from her many television appearances including her role as Lindsey Corkhill in Brookside.

She is perfectly cast as Rita, a 26 year old working class Liverpudlian hairdresser. Rita  has become bored by her life and feels trapped in her marriage and social circle. She decides that studying English Literature through the Open University will widen her horizons and give her the choices she so sorely lacks.

Rita's tutor is Dr Frank Bryant, played by Matthew Kelly. He is a jaded and alcoholic character who, to begin with, finds his newest student to be another irritant in his underwhelming working life, but soon begins to look forward to their weekly sessions as he introduces her to the great writers she has never heard of . . . 

Frank: “Do you know Yeats?” 

Rita: “The wine lodge?” 

Frank: “ No, WB Yeats, the poet”.

Rita is a breath of fresh air for Frank with her beguilingly honest and naïve reactions to the world of academia. Being from Liverpool herself, Claire Sweeney is a natural in this part. She is funny, her accent is perfect, and the audience warm to her throughout.

Matthew Kelly's character is less sympathetic but he conveys with empathy the manner in which Frank had rather given up on life until brash, loud, funny Rita crashes into his office and makes him see education from a different angle, and perhaps fall a little in love with her and her upbeat take on life.

It is a Henry Higgins/Eliza Dolittle scenario with both characters benefitting from meeting someone from a very different class, age, and background.

The set is impressive with thousands of books for Frank to hide his bottles of whisky behind, and huge windows for Rita to gaze out of as she sees her future opening up to more choices than “Liverpool or Everton, Stork or butter, or buying a new dress and going to the pub.”

However, Willy Russell's original 1980 stage play, which also starred Julie Walters, will perhaps always pale a little in comparison to the fine film version, but that is to take nothing away from Sweeney and Kelly who play their parts so well.

Olivier award winning actor Kelly incidentally was at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre in the 1970s working alongside Willy Russell and Julie Walters  as well as the likes of Bill Nighy and the late, Pete Postlethwaite.To 19-05-12

Clare Trow 

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