"An irresistible passion for learning"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 25/06/19

The Theatre by the Lake’s production of Willy Russell's ‘Educating Rita’, starring Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, is excellent. It is now showing at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, one of many exceptional live shows brought to Devon by Artistic Director Daniel Buckroyd and his team.

It's been a while since I saw a production of this well-loved two-hander, and I'd forgotten just how good a play it is. When ‘Educating Rita’ was written, I too was studying for a degree with the Open University. Tonight I realised that being a small part of that picture in the 1980s made me unable to see fully just what a major force for change the Open University was and is… for people on low incomes; for working-class scholars; for the ill and disabled; for women. For starters. Although Rita and I came from very different starting points as I already had my teaching qualification, nevertheless there were many experiences that we shared, due to the unique qualities of the Open University. I was transported back to a very different time of my life. There was an additional poignancy in that I received my degree in the Great Hall at Exeter University, right next to the Northcott Theatre!

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, as Frank and Rita, bring vividly to life the relationship between an academic weary of himself and his work, and a young woman hungry for knowledge and experience, about to discover that education brings changes we long for, and some we don't expect or want. Jessica Johnson movingly shows the cost to Rita and her husband, family and friends as she pursues her dream.

In the honeymoon period, teachers and pupils grow together in the heady intimacy of learning. Stephen Tompkinson's world-weary Frank receives a shot in the arm from his unconventional, challenging student, and there is a tenderness between them that is palpable. Frank's attraction to Rita is beautifully and subtly portrayed. The same can be said of Rita's transition from brash passion for learning to more measured academic consideration, particularly reflected in her way of speaking. Her broad Liverpudlian softens as Rita grows further from her roots.

Honeymoons don’t last, alas. As Rita becomes confident enough to confront and challenge Frank, not least about his drinking, things became rocky. His resistance to Rita layering the reading of a text with perceptions of sexuality chimes with my memories. One of the difficult things for a teacher is to be left behind as the student finds their wings and learns to fly. Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson's characters, having shown us their affectionate, mutual appreciation, also demonstrate how painful it is when those in a relationship move in different directions. Director Max Roberts elicits powerful performances from his cast that run the whole gamut of emotions.

Designer Patrick Connellan’s set is all one could hope for, with sterling work from Lighting Designer Drummond Orr and Sound Designer David Flynn. The Bert Jansch-style guitar music between scenes is just right for the era, and Costume Supervisor Sam Newland also hits the right notes… Jessica Johnson has a vast number of costume changes, which she handles with flair. At times it was like looking through an old photograph album!

The authenticity of Willy Russell’s writing about class, women and choice, coupled with a first class cast, make this production something to remember.

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