Inasmuch as two plays playing in rep constitutes a season, it's currently Willy Russell Season at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where his two best-known (non-musical) plays have been revived. Next week I'll be joined by Christopher to see Shirley Valentine but tonight it was just me for Educating Rita, with Laura dos Santos and Larry Lamb taking on the roles made famous by Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Rita (who's changed her name from Susan as a nod towards starting a new life) is a Scouse hairdresser who feels she's missing out on life and enrols in an Open University literature course. Her tutor is Frank, an alcoholic and failed poet who is exasperated by her at first but inevitably sees a spark in her that makes him soldier on with her education. The play covers a couple of terms of their weekly meetings, as Rita becomes more confident in her newly-acquired knowledge, and Frank's life falls even further apart.
This is a slightly rewritten version of the play, and in the programme Russell voices concerns about it dating because students barely get any one-on-one time with their tutors anymore, let alone two hours a week¹ but to be honest what seemed most out of place to me was Frank's flirting with Rita in the early scenes - if he did that with all his female students that would have got him into trouble long before his drinking did. It's hard to know where director Jeremy Sams' sympathies lie as Rita becomes more of an academic; there's a sense of her losing some of her individuality but I actually find Frank's objection to her progress rather patronising, his idea that her original reactions were somehow purer a bit like viewing her as a "noble savage." The star of the show is dos Santos who has all the combination of energy and bolshiness with an underlying vulnerability that you could ask for. Lamb I was less convinced by, and unfortunately very early on, his thick spectacles and wobbly head and arms made me think of him as a white-haired Brains from Thunderbirds, and that's the sort of image that stays with you all the way through. (The wobbly-head thing is quite bizarre, is that meant to be his "tipsy" acting? I don't watch Eastenders so only know Lamb from Gavin and Stacey but I don't recall him doing it in that.) Ultimately the play is still witty and on Peter McKintosh's set looks great, but I found myself unable to quite engage with it.
Educating Rita by Willy Russell is booking until the 8th of May at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
¹actually the whole teaching setup makes no sense - I've never done an OU course but presumably it is an actual course, with other students, lectures of some kind and a set subject matter, but Frank and Rita seem to pick any volume of prose or poetry from all of English Literature to study next, based entirely on where the conversation takes them.