It’s a play that has become part of our collective consciousness. It seems as though Educating Rita – currently running at The Liverpool Playhouse – has always been there, but though first performed 34 years ago it has lost none of it crispness and bite.
Finely directed by Gemma Bodinetz this two hander never slackens its pace. Of course we have the fine writing of Russell, who has tweaked some 80s references to make it more contemporary, but the themes are the same, a young hairdresser with an eager mind looking for more than her humble background can give her. Frank, her weary, whisky soaked tutor, only doing Open University work for the money. And so the to collide!
This was an age when those who missed out first time round in the education stakes were given a second chance.
In breezes Scouser Rita (the wonderful Leanne Best) who brings light and air into his jaded world. WIth her witty scousims and swearing she is the golden light of enthusiasm that he lost many aeons ago.
Bit by bit she absorbs, after many aborted attempts writing ‘crap’ and succeeds, but with personal loss. And Frank also loses his fresh, young, student with whom he develops a deep affection. He feels he has created a monster.
But what does she learn? Is it to be as good as him, better than him…is it the fact that she can discern the difference between popular and artistic culture, or more than this?
It’s a clever play that tips the power balance between tutor and student with many witty lines and belly laughs along the way.
The set (by Conor Murphy) is an evocative circular study crammed with books and hidden whisky bottles, with a tipping circular ceiling onto which are projected images of the 80s and the Birth of Venus – an allegorical reference to Rita’s new life?
There are some tender moments and the nuances of a love story are tantalisingly always there. Leanne Best, first in tight trousers and short skirts, later in bo-ho chic, is a powerful presence. A Lipa graduate her accent always pleases and her quick-fire delivery is spot on. Con O’Neill as Frank, in baggy trousers and cardigans, seems weary and disinterested, with a performance that was clearly understated. He sparked up in the second half, but more projection would have helped. He elicits sympathy as it is obvious he has grown fond of his aspiring student who always bats away his advances with a smart Scouse witticism.
The well known ending did not disappoint. She says she has always taken from him and wants to give something back. The scene is beautifully directed and rounds off a delightful performance from two accomplished actors.
By Willy Russell
Liverpool Playhouse Theatre
Until March 7 2015
Purple Revolver rating: **** TOP OF THE CLASS