Educating Rita at the Lowry, Salford

Educating Rita is the current production by the Manchester Library Theatre at their temporary home in Salford’s wonderful Lowry complex. If you’ve never been to the Lowry then you are in for a treat, it’s a beautiful gentrified location by the historic Salford quayside and next to the sprawling television studios belonging to ITV and the BBC. It’s only spoiled by its proximity to Old Trafford, the theatre of comedy, but that’s another story.

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Educating Rita is a play by Willy Russell and is rightly famous from the 1983 film version starring our national treasures Michael Caine and Julie Walters. Those are big shoes to step into but Philip Bretherton and Gillian Kearney do it with aplomb.

The stage version differs from the film in one crucial point – there are only ever two actors on the stage. Bretherton and Kearney have to bring a whole wealth of background characters to life and it is testament to their stage skills, and to the brilliance of Russell’s script, that they carry this off flawlessly.

Bretherton plays Frank, an ageing University lecturer who has signed up, against his better judgement, to teach Open University students. He is a troubled man, with a failed marriage and a penchant for lining up bottles of whiskey behind his dust covered bookshelf. He is a cynic weighed down by his own self loathing and sense of failure as a poet. He teaches English literature yet states that he hates the theatre and never goes.

Kearney plays a character called ‘Rita’ – but is she really Rita at all? I won’t say any more on this matter – see for yourself if you don’t already know the plot. Rita is a hairdresser who dreams of becoming socially mobile. She knows nothing and cares about nothing when we first see her but what she does have is a drive and desire to learn and as the play progresses we see her blossoming intellectually and socially under the guidance of Frank.

It might seem as if Frank would be an unsympathetic character, a morbid and jealous drunk – but not a bit of it. He gains our sympathy with every lurch, every slurred bon mot. Whilst he is undoubtedly pathetic we can’t help but feel sorry for him. He sees Rita change, yet he cannot change. He is emotionally moribund, incapable of expressing his feelings – struggling manfully, yet failing pitifully, to tell Rita that he loves her.

And this, I feel, is the pathos that is central to this brilliant play. At the beginning Frank is the man of importance and Rita is under his spell and insignificant but by the end the roles have completely reversed. Rita has become a success, a social butterfly, a learned woman – but at what cost? Is her life at the end, under the courtship of yet another man who she doesn’t care for, any better than the life with which she started? It seems that Rita will never fit in, she is destined to be a traveller throughout life rather than a settler.

Willy Russell is a brilliant wordsmith, and at its joyous heart is a paeon to the importance of education yet he also seems to say that more important than learning, than certificates is emotion and love itself. And these can so easily be lost in the struggle for the materialistic possessions that modern society deems to be of more importance.

It is a beautiful play and the Lowry give it a triumphant production. There is some great 80s music to accompany the scene changes as well and these brought back some great memories.

Educating Rita is on at the Lowry Theatre, Salford until 12th October. I urge you to see it and have no hesitation in giving it the big, big five tortoise shell rating!