Educating Rita

Lichfield Garrick

*****

EVERY so often the world of theatre throws up a little gem – and this one positively sparkles from the moment jaded, disheveled academic, Dr Frank Bryant stumbles through the door desperate for a drink.

Willie Russell's two hander started life in 1980 and it is a tribute to both his writing, updated a little admittedly, and the cast that you could easily believe you were watching a new play. It is still as relevant now as it was a generation ago, fresh, vibrant and very funny - with a fine thread of pathos running though it. Class and academia, it seems, never change.

We have Rita, played by Tupele Dorgu, once of Coronation Street and most recently starring in Chicago, who is a working class Liverpool hairdresser who managed, like so many, to pass through school without much in the way of education sticking to her.

She is different though. She despairs at the prospect of a life of pubs, small talk in the salon where she works, karaoke and babies and wants more, so, at the age of 29 she decides it's time to go back to school and enrols on an English literature course at the Open University to find herself.

Her real name is Susan, but she calls herself Rita after Rita Mae Brown author of her favourite book, the lesbian coming-of-age autobiographical novel, Rubyfruit Jungle. A book she thinks is brilliant.

Her tutor is Frank, a jaundiced university lecturer and once, many years ago, a minor poet, played by the Garrick Rep's producer, Walsall actor Tom Roberts.

His study is a mixture of library and off-licence with bottles out of sight behind books on every shelf – his compromise with the University authorities on his drinking habits.

Tupele Dorgu as Rita who wants to learn everything from her tutor Frank played by Tom Roberts who in turn tells her he knows . . .  precisely nothing

Frank is divorced, a drunk who is living in a less then happy relationship with an ex-student and like Rita, despairs at the life he is leading – the only difference is that his life in academia is the same life that his new student Rita aspires to join.

It is Frank's first tutorship with the OU, a job he has taken on with no more noble an aspiration than to subsidise his rather large booze bill; so Rita is a necessary inconvenience – as are most of his students.

Yet in Rita he starts to see an enthusiasm, a vitality, a burning desire to learn which starts to reawaken his own interest in literature.

Rita's lack of literary knowledge is apparent from the off when, for example, talking about poetry she is asked:

“Do you know Yeats?

“ The wine lodge?

“ No, W.B. Yeats, the poet.

The play follows their relationship over a year, marked by a changing calendar on the wall. As Rita learns, and talks, and talks and talks . . . Lord, can she talk . . . Frank stops drinking and rediscovers his love of literature and teaching – at least where Rita is concerned - and a growing affection for his willing pupil.

Rita's late search for education comes at a price though – her husband throws her out for refusing to give up the course and have a baby – which forces her to make a new life but as she learns, Rita slowly changes; the naïve, refreshingly honest, bright but unpolished Scouse hairdresser who soaks up learning like a sponge, starts to ape all the pretensions of academia that Frank hates. At first it amuses him but then he starts to despair. The real Rita, the one he had started to fall in love with -"if only you had come through that door 20 years ago" - the Rita full of life and passion, has been lost to the literature snobs; his drinking and cynicism return until finally he is reported by his students for being drunk at a lecture.

“Pissed? I was glorious. I fell off the rostrum twice.”

You can see his time, and probably hers, at the university are limited.

Frank finally gets around to reading Rubyfruit Jungle and declares it to be quite brilliant but Rita declares the book to be rubbish, seeing it as something childish and unworthy – or perhaps, more honestly, something from a past she does not want to acknowledge. She even wants to change her name so she is not associated with Mae Brown any more.

For the first time we see all the anger and frustration as Frank finally turns on his student:

 "Found a culture, have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing, have you? No--you have found a different song, that's all. And on your lips it's shrill and hollow and tuneless."

She storms out - Frank takes to the bottle.

Rita passes her exam, with a good mark, but once again she is questioning her life, this time her new one, after her flatmate's attempted suicide.

Life among the literary elite is just as empty as the superficial, unfulfilling one from which she thought she had escaped. She returns to thank Frank who his packing his books and bottles away, having been banished to Australia for two years by the university – an academic yellow card for his drinking.

We have come full circle with both once more looking for a new start.

Rita finds that her new life among the shallow literary snobs is as empty as the life she thought she had left behind

Dorgu and Roberts are quite magnificent. Rita is a huge part, a feat of memory, that requires not only a good Liverpool accent, but great comic timing and endless costume changes – all at high speed and sometimes on a blacked out stage and Dorgu never puts a stiletto heeled foot wrong.

Roberts' Frank is more laid back, cynical at first then encouraging so his explosion at the end comes as rather a shock to both the audience and Rita. His inebriated Frank in the second act is a masterclass of playing a drunk with a legless Frank desperately trying to appear sober and carry on as normal.

Director Gareth Tudor Price, former artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre, has kept up a cracking pace with even the black-outs between scenes playing their part helping to indicate a passage of time rather than just slowing things down.

The Garrick Rep company have not skimped on the set design by  John Brooking either and it shows with as solid a panelled wall, with its slightly grubby leaded windows, as you are likely to see.

It has been a couple of years since the last Garrick Rep production, Ayckbourn's Haunting Julia, which went on to the West End and then a national tour last year, while an earlier production, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf , starring Matthew Kelly and Tracy Childs, also went on to the West End.

This is a first class production which also deserves a London airing and in the intimate surroundings of the Garrick Studio you are right there in the study with Frank and Rita. Quality acting and quality writing all on your doorstep.  A gem not to be missed.To 22-06-13.

Roger Clarke

Rita's educating Tupele

 

A class above the rest

*****

IF ANY of you have teenage children studying English or a similar related subject and have been tasked with helping them at some point, you may just have encountered the underlying frustration of Dr Frank Bryant, the middle-aged university lecture in Willey Russell's Educating Rita.

The modern day curriculum, more than ever, asks for students to deliver only views to writing and poetry within the confines of pre-determined educational responses; there is no place for personal interpretation. The education of literature is a mechanical process and far from the random, inspirational and emotional muse that creates it. Frank knows this and after a weary lifetime rebels against the system that employs him, to disseminate a subject he feels passionately about, finding respite only in his alcoholism. 

Enter Rita, a bubbly 29 year old hairdresser from a Liverpool working class background, who is now seeking educational enlightenment and the scene is set to examine education, an individual's exclusion from it, and the change that the Open University brought to adult study, at a time when the notion of further education was deemed to belong only to the privileged.

Tupele Dorgu takes on the formidable task of Rita with a break neck speed and passion for the part and clearly revels in the passion Rita has for acquiring new knowledge. Her take on the role is quite different as she engages with the opening world of learning and literature in a frenzy of energy and wonder.

Tom Roberts plays Frank Bryant and is a constant measure and antidote to her youthfulness. Although impressed by her raw enthusiasm he becomes frustrated by his underlying need to corral her thinking into an academic and accepted form. There are some thunderous exchanges between the two and the pairing both deliver excellent performances within this award winning play.

The play is directed by Gareth Tudor price and features a very impressive flat wall set. The only issue I have with the experience is according to where you sit, that in the intimate studio space you will be presented with a very one dimensional view according to where your seat is allocated. Both characters are often in the same position and my view was disappointingly mostly of the back of Rita's head for much of the performance. Simply using the space more effectively would have further added to the enjoyment of this.

So another first class production for this well established company and it's just a pity they do not come around more often. To 22-06-13

Jeff Grant 

 

Meanwhile, question three on the exam paper . . .

*****

FREQUENT bursts of applause during opening night of Willy Russell's clever play indicated just how much the audience were enjoying this production by the Lichfield Garrick Rep Company.

The film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine was a hit, telling the heart-warming story of how working class Liverpool hairdresser Rita decides she wants more out of life and enrols for an Open University course on literary appreciation.

It loses nothing of its impact in the intimate atmosphere of the Garrick studio, where John Brooking's impressively designed set, representing Professor Frank Bryant's oak-panelled study on the first floor of a Victorian-built university, is simply ideal.

Tupele Dorgu, of Coronation Street and Chicago the musical fame, lights up the stage with wonderful performance as Rita, bringing every ounce of razor-sharp humour to the role of the 29-year-old married woman desperate to find something more from life than just trimming hair and avoiding her husband's demands to come off the pill.

It's remarkable how who quickly and frequently she manages to change her clothes, from a range of mini skirts in the opening scenes, to ankle length dresses as she matures in the second act.

And Walsall-born actor Tom Roberts, playing the world weary middle-aged alcoholic, Professor Bryant, is the perfect foil. Bearded Tom, a touch dishevelled, gets it just right as the intellectual who at first finds the 'overtime' job of teaching the young woman a chore - while pulling bottles of scotch from behind books -  but gets a lesson himself from the young woman bristling with enthusiasm and fun.

Directed by Gareth Tudor Price and produced by Adrian Jackson and Roberts, the play runs to 22.06.13

Paul Marston 

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