Anyone performing in Educating Rita has big shoes to fill. The Willy Russell play was adapted into an award-winning film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, so anyone stepping into the play’s two roles must feel a certain amount of pressure to bring the characters to life in a way that doesn’t imitate, yet doesn’t stray too far away from the playwright’s intentions.
Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson are the perfect duo, adding their own spin to the play whilst still capturing its poignant essence. Tompkinson plays the frustrated Frank, a university lecturer and dedicated drinker. It would be an easy role to overplay, yet Tompkinson brings a vulnerability and honesty to the role. Frank is real to us, with all his flaws and intricacies an embedded part of his personality. We watch him grow fond of his new student, Rita, which soon evolves into frustration. Their relationship progresses intimately and subtly throughout the show. We are drawn into these character’s lives as if we’ve been part of them for years – a tribute to Willy Russell’s skilful writing but also this production’s thoughtful portrayal.
Jessica Johnson is a vibrant force as Rita. Enthusiastic and confident, determined yet full of self doubt. Johnson’s Liverpudlian accent slips a little but, aside from that, she’s Rita through-and-through and we truly do root for her. She’s seeking meaning, culture and education, which she finds in her close bond with teacher Frank.
The stunning set places us firmly in Frank’s academic office, with sneaky bottles of booze tucked behind several books placed strategically on his bookshelves. Set over a long period of time, the play seamlessly demonstrates the passing of time through strategic costume changes and musical interludes. The direction is faultless throughout, from the production’s staging to the character’s quick-witted interactions.
Educating Rita takes audiences on Rita and Frank’s journey to discovering themselves, and it’s a treat to be part of. Don’t miss your opportunity to see the show at York Theatre Royal until 4th September.