Thursday, February 04, 2016

Educating Rita … Educating Frank (Lyric Theatre until 5 March)

Rita White works in a hair salon and is fed up with the inane drivel that passes for conversation. She aspires to break free from superficial nonsense and chooses to enrol on an Open University course in English Literature to allow her to grapple with life’s more important issues. University lecturer and lethargic poet Frank agrees to tutor Rita after hours for the OU in order to subsidise his considerable bar bills.
“I’ve been realising for ages that I was out of step”

Piles of books on the floor overflow from the bookcases that line most of the walls of Frank’s generously sized office. He finds Rita to be a breath of fresh air as his protégé struggles into the room for her weekly tutorials. She isn’t fluent in the language of academics. Her original and often frank viewpoints are as fresh and valid as they are useless for passing an examination. If Frank is successful as a teacher, he will destroy the object of his fascination. Despite both characters’ enduring household dramas, momentary flickers of lust and sexual tension are brushed away by the education-thirsty Rita.
“Possessing a hungry mind is not in itself a guarantee of success”

Kerri Quinn thrives in the role of Rita, slowly evolving the thirty year old hairdresser’s mannerisms, accent and delivery as Rita’s confidence and study technique grows. At the start the contents of Rita’s furry pencil case are as flamboyant as her dress sense. But gradual costume changes between scenes – not to mention increasingly sober stationery – add further layers to her character’s development. There’s a lot of comedy in the script, and like an air-traffic controller guiding planes onto the Heathrow runway, Kerri lands the lines safely.

Every five or ten minutes the play races onto the next scene and we’re back in the office to get feedback on Rita’s latest essay. While she wants to learn, can she be taught? Will her husband give her the space to change? And will Frank ever return to his poetry?

Michael James Ford has mastered the art of bumbling around Frank’s office and being browbeaten by Rita’s staccato tongue.

After the interval the play accelerates towards its conclusion, with major changes affecting the lives of each character. The bookcases’ own special effect is another symbolic reminder of what’s going on inside Frank’s world. There’s a level of attention to detail across the whole production, down to sound designer Philip Stewart’s miccing of the manual typewriter, the radio clips used to anchor the action in 1980/1, and the meaningful selection of music to introduce each scene.

On Wednesday night the audience gleefully applauded each scene change as well as a number of set piece speeches within the play. Somehow Frank’s descent in melancholy doesn’t earn the full sympathy of the audience and the final scene lacks the assurance of the rest of the play.

In moving Educating Rita away from its Liverpool roots and getting Oisin Kearney to Belfastise Willy Russell’s original script, the Lyric took a risk. But it’s a risk that paid off for director Emma Jordan with a performance that entertains as well as examines the choices that education offers.

Educating Rita runs in the Lyric Theatre eight times a week until 5 March and is well worth catching.

Production shots by Stephan Hill

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