Educating Rita @ Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson excel in this 40th-anniversary production of Willy Russell's classic two-hander
This revival of Educating Rita, directed by Max Roberts, showcases a magnificent rapport between two equally lost characters. From the moment student Rita (Jessica Johnson) bursts through tutor Frank's rickety office door, the cobwebs are blown away; every earnest question and eager glance blows dust from his shelves as he begins to consider his position as an educator with fresh eyes.
Johnson's performance is earnest and heartfelt, and develops as her character becomes more complex. Johnson portrays, with nuance and realism, Rita's struggle to connect with a canon blind to working-class stories. She questions the lack of representation in her assigned study, to which Frank (Stephen Tompkinson) responds: "He's Ibsen – he doesn't need to concern himself with poor people". "Its immoral!" cries an indignant Rita. "It's amoral", retorts Frank. This pedantic response serves as a stern reminder of the impenetrability of class and education. You can engage, but the academic elite will not fail to pick you apart with semantics and whatever other linguistic weaponry they have stored in their academic artillery the moment you slip up.
Rita's hypocrisy is illuminated when, as she returns buoyed from an enlightening few weeks at summer school, she cruelly picks on a young student out on the grass, humiliating his (overheard) opinion with a sophisticated argument to an audience of peers. Frank cringes as she recounts this story to him with gusto – playwright Willy Russell's perfect plot device reveals to Frank the "Frankenstein's monster" he has created, and he must confront his own elitism with terrifying proximity.
This internal dilemma is performed with superb comic timing by Tompkinson, who is both believable and pitiful as Frank. There are also some poignant touches in the staging, such as when Frank clears out his office and every book is removed to reveal a spirit of one kind or another stashed behind it. This clever visual representation by Roberts further unearths academia as a crutch for Frank's ego, exposing the depressive and addicted poet underneath.
An amusing, clever and thoroughly well-played revival of a comedy which, with its portrayal of class and the education system, is still all too relevant in 2020.
Educating Rita, touring until 23 May, including King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-16 May