Review: Educating Rita, Bradford Alhambra, 18/06/2012


When? Monday 18th June 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Matthew Kelly, Claire Sweeney

It would be simple enough to critique Willy Russell’s Educating Rita as a distinctly 1980’s re-telling of Pygmalion; but that perhaps may be a disservice to a piece which continues to perform consistently on its own merits – in the box office, at the very least – proving that if a play is warm, funny and the public can relate on some level, they will keep coming back. The play has been approved as a featured text on the GCSE national syllabus for almost a decade and, much like Blood Brothers – another GCSE text – Educating Rita, like Pygmalion, has more to give than a simple fictional tale. The story is centred around circumstance, specifically (and, almost universally in Russell’s eighties heyday) about the struggles of the working class in his native Liverpool.  But it is nigh-on impossible to examine Educating Rita without sounding like a Year 10 student’s coursework; the ‘subtext’, using the term loosely, is not so much obvious as intrusive at times and doesn’t merit further comment. Only the most generous theatregoer could consider Russell’s sociopolitical work as serious comment; at best Educating Rita is an amusingly written anecdotal reference to his working class roots and own journey of self-development – at worst it is a dated, mildly patronising exaggeration of what he perceived to be the quintessential working class Liverpudlian. Either way, what Educating Rita does deliver is an amusing and entertaining few hours of well-acted fluff.

The joint production between the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Bath incorporates one static but detailed set (Tim Shortall) which fills the central space of the Alhambra’s vast stage; time passing is represented effectively enough by a projected tree outside of the large bay window of Frank’s bar-cum-office. It was a little strange as the lights dropped to watch Kelly scrambling centre stage to change cardigans each time the lights dropped, but in a two-hander needs must! The evening is coated in a thick blanket of whimsy through which no gravitas dare escape; and I say this very much as a compliment. Director Tamara Harvey understands the strengths of the piece – the humour, the accessibility – and thankfully plays to these rather than attempting to make the play any more serious than absolutely required. The acting throughout is of a good standard; Claire Sweeney stands out of the pair as Rita, although it is very hard not to compare her performance with that of Julie Walters in the 1983 movie adaptation, with Walters’ characterisation somehow a mite fleshier. Sweeney possesses excellent comic timing and, particularly in the first act, gets this side of her performance down to a tee. Matthew Kelly gives a fair turn as Frank and wins plenty of laughs; however, a few of these were a touch inappropriate and at the expense of pathos; no more so than in the final scene where I can’t help but feel Russell intended for the actor to play it straight, in a final dramatic realisation that they have reached the end of their respective journeys.

I can’t help but feel that in keeping the action firmly locked to its original setting, director Harvey has missed an opportunity with this new production to bring the piece into the modern day. Unlike Blood Brothers, which is very specifically written for the political and socio-economic climate of the day, the message in Educating Rita is timeless and could resonate more harmoniously with a younger generation if brought into the present. In short, nothing has really changed or likely ever will in what Russell is trying to say in Educating Rita, so there is no reason to intentionally keep the context out of date and lessen the relevance for the audience.

Educating Rita remains one of Russell’s better works and this production is well-acted and worth a visit. It plays at the Bradford Alhambra until 23rd of June 2012

- Harry Zing

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