Educating Rita

24th February to 2nd March 2024

Willy Russell | Crescent Theatre | Directed by Fi Cotton

Willy Russell’s modern classic feels fresh and excitingly alive in the Crescent Theatre’s latest studio production.

Educating Rita, the story of one working-class woman’s journey of self-discovery, was first staged in 1980 with Julie Walters in the title role. She would later star in a hugely successful film version opposite Michael Caine. These performances loom large over the play for some audiences but in Fi Cotton’s excellent production the characters feel entirely original and fresh thanks to consistently strong performances from Vicky Youster and William Hayes.

Of course it’s a play about class. Russell himself was the first member of his working-class family to attend university and, like Rita, his route to higher education was through the Open University. But it’s about so much more than class and, in this production, I was struck by just how much Russell explores the nature of art, specifically ‘Literature’. ‘Literature’ with a capital ‘L’. What is it? Who is it for? Who has access to it? And, given the male-dominated nature of the literary canon, where do female writers and readers fit in?

Frank is a member of the academic establishment: he knows the difference between ‘literature’ and ‘Literature’, between E M Forster and John Grisham. He is deeply unhappy about being expected to ‘teach when the pubs are open’ and before Rita’s arrival we see him rummaging around for a bottle of scotch from his library shelves. The minimal use of props in this production works well: aside from a few piles of books and a short step-ladder, we are forced to imagine Frank’s university office, the setting for the whole play. Staging in the round also works well, creating an intimacy and connection with the audience.

William Hayes’ Frank is a rightly complex man, combining exasperation with self-pity. He doesn’t play the failed-poet lecturer for laughs: although very funny in places this is a serious play. Whilst Russell focuses on Rita’s journey, Frank also changes. Hayes’ performance captures the struggles of a man who has lost faith in his own talents and who has worked for years in an education system which values literary criticism over joyful exploration of great writing.

Vicky Youster’s Rita is a Liverpudlian delight, a bundle of energy and life from the moment she bursts through the imaginary door to Frank’s office. The scouse accent is spot on, as is the delivery and comic timing. In the first half the laughs come thick and fast but we soon see the anger and frustration underneath the masking humour. Jokes about doing Peer Gynt ‘on the radio’ and ‘Howard’s End’ (“sounds filthy, doesn’t it?”) give way to righteous anger as we witness Rita’s journey into a cultural ‘no-man’s-land’ between her working-class roots and the educated classes.

Over 40 years after it’s first performance, ‘Educating Rita’ has become a modern classic which has even made it onto the GCSE syllabus. It still asks difficult and important questions about identity, autonomy, gender roles, class and the role of literature in our lives. This impressive production entertains and provokes in equal measure: a winning combination.

Educating Rita is playing at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 24th February to 2nd March 2024.