Melissa Blease reviews Willy Russell’s Educating Rita starring Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 8 June

June 1980: the UK was in the grip of a major recession, urban riots dominated the headlines and Educating Rita – commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and written by Willy Russell – premiered at London’s Warehouse theatre. And the critics went crazy…

“It’s a masterpiece examining the concept of freedom, and England’s class system, and the shortcomings of institutional education, and the nature of self-development!” screamed one. “It’s an au courant Pygmalion, based on archetypes from Greek mythology!” yelled another. And quietly, in the background… “it’s just a play about a girl who wants to be a different kind of girl,” said Russell. And, almost four decades on from when a mouthy hairdresser first crashed into a university professor’s office on a quest to become ‘a different type of girl’ to the one she was, Russell’s masterpiece remains as vital, relevant and engaging as contemporary theatre can be.  

In these attention-deficit days, it isn’t easy to keep a two character/one set/150-minute drama captivating throughout. But David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers/Theatre by the Lake’s latest touring production of this enduringly popular revival offers a masterclass in how a really, really good script, two really, really good actors and a really, really good director can make tricksy devices, sensory brace-yourself soundscapes or shock tactics redundant.

As a result, modern day theatrical thrill-seekers who don’t believe that a static, bookshelf-lined set containing little more than a big office desk and a couple of picture windows (through which we can’t see any kind of view) can possibly be a promising backdrop for any kind of attention-grabbing action are about to have their perceptions seriously challenged. While those who think that contemporary analysis of behavioural boundaries, social influence and sociological perceptions of the role of women in the 1980s/1990s cultural landscape began and ended with Pretty Woman need to think again.

Okay, so when Rita first appears, she’s wearing the full-on, clichéd working class woman’s uniform du jour (‘du jour’ being 40 years ago, remember): tight skirt, high heels, push-up bra, the whole shebang. But jaded university professor Frank’s image is equally stereotypical too – and Stephen Tompkinson fits the role as easily as he wears the garb that instantly suggest careworn professor, frustrated poet, jaded academic and wannabe alcoholic: you can almost smell last night’s whisky emanating from his baggy, crumpled clothes; you just know that his ragged grey hair reeks more of yet another disappointing evening down the pub than Pantene.

As the drama rolls along, Frank’s camouflage of arrogance slips off to reveal the vulnerability he’s trying so hard to hide, while his ego turns out to be as fragile as his tenure at the university he’s worked at for way too long; ultimately, Tompkinson delivers a first class performance. 

It’s Jessica Johnson, however, who deserves a doctorate for bringing Rita to buoyant, motormouth life. Exuberant, sharp, loveably lively and thoroughly convincing as the girl-who-wants-to-make-good, her comic timing is superb, her charm congenital rather than clichéd, her attitude and delivery authentically Scouse (and you can take this last endorsement from someone who knows all too well how ‘authentically Scouse’ rolls).

As Tompkinson and Johnson take us on a whistlestop journey through a year(ish) in the lives of two ostensibly disparate characters, the pace never drops, the melodrama never gets mawkish, the authenticity of the situation never wavers. We never know how either of the pair’s lives unfold past the final (subtly moving) scene, but one thing is certain: Rita is far more credible than Russell’s Shirley Valentine, and Frank far, far less syrupy than either of his Blood Brothers

Intelligent and funny, sincere and gregarious, Educating Rita is a play for today that must never be allowed to become yesterday’s dissertation.

Main image: Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita. Credit: Robert Day