Rita Learns Things

Educating Rita
(Court Theatre)

Written by Willy Russell
Directed by Yvonne Martin
Starring George Henare & Kathleen Burns

From the writer of Blood Brothers (Willy Russell) comes his most acclaimed play, Educating Rita, an hilarious and often moving story of a woman determined to better herself.

Thinking that there is more to life than working in a hair salon, street-smart Rita, fizzing with ambition, sets out to find herself through higher education. Book-smart Frank, a failed poet with a failed marriage, has grown disillusioned with higher education and has just about given up. He agrees to tutor Rita to pay for his drinking habit, totally unaware his world is about to be turned upside down.

The unlikely pair form a life-changing bond as Frank enlivens Rita’s soul through Shakespeare and Chekhov, while Rita reawakens Frank with a breath of fresh air in this heart-warming comic masterpiece.

Review by Charlie Gates, The Press

A revival of British playwright Willy Russell’s classic 1980s play Educating Rita is a perfect showcase for two of New Zealand’s most-talented actors.

This charming, thoughtful and entertaining two-hander stars Court regular Kathleen Burns as the titular Rita White and celebrated stage actor George Henare as her university lecturer Frank.

Rita is a young hairdresser burning with curiosity and a reaching desire for something more than her working class existence in 1980s Liverpool. As she puts it, she wants bigger choices in her life than the one between butter and margarine. Hollow consumerism isn’t providing the freedom and choice she craves.

When she signs up for an English literature course at the Open University she is assigned to Frank, a jaded older lecturer and former poet who has lost his way in a cosy haze of Famous Grouse and comfortable academia.

It is a pleasure to watch the awakening of these two characters, portrayed in a series of sharply written scenes that take place over the course of more than a year. Frank is slapped awake from his boozy stupor by this dazzling young woman and her fresh perspective on his world. While Rita, through determination and hard work, builds herself a life of satisfying and meaningful choices.

Kathleen Burns is the blazing heart of this show. Her vivid portrayal of Rita is lit from within with verve, wit and conviction. The Liverpool accent is difficult to master, but Burns has the basics down, even though she occasionally drifts into other regions of England. I think she will settle more comfortably into the accent as the run continues.

But it hardly matters as Burns brings this character alive with such spark and clarity. Henare unselfishly allows Burns to shine, putting in a quiet and convincing performance as the disillusioned academic.

The two spar beautifully in the short and punchy scenes, perfectly maintaining a flawless and flowing tempo that captures the essence of each scene, character and moment.

One minor criticism is that there seems to be a slight lack of natural chemistry and spark between the two leads. This means a subplot about Frank being quietly besotted with Rita falls a bit flat. The gentle flirting is never returned by Rita and so feels a little awkward and uncomfortable. It means that some of the moments in the play’s closing moments do not quite pay off.

(NB: I would disagree as I never thought the relationship was ever intended to drift into being remotely  sexual)

The costume and set design is engineered to focus solely on these two characters and their changing world. Rita’s costumes slowly transform from bright and cheerful fashion to more sedate and sophisticated as her character changes. Meanwhile, Frank stays in his denim jeans and white shirt, unable to change in such dramatic fashion.

The single set also keeps the focus on these two characters. The small set, placed in the center of the stage, is a tight little slice of parquet-floored academia – cluttered with books, unmarked papers and half empty bottles of booze.

The costumes, lighting and set design all serve two wonderful performances by two wonderful actors, portraying raw curiosity and jaded academia as they blossom into new lives.

Review by Lindsay Clark, Theatreview

An affectionate revisiting of this classic two-hander is a warm reminder, as Russell puts it, of “things that matter”. He and we might have hoped that social concerns such as dispirited ignorance on one hand and pretentious institutionalized education on the other would have changed for the better over the past thirty odd years since it was first performed. If only.

However, the real drivers of the play are the timeless themes of the quest for personal freedom and expression as well as the bitter-sweet consequences of changing personal relationships, and these are handled with refreshing zeal.

Yvonne Martin’s direction has all the finesse of experience and insight, ensuring that there is an engaging overall build to a series of tutorial encounters which all take place in the context of The Open University in Liverpool in the eighties, all under our gaze in a single study.

Her creative team lays it all out for us in telling detail. Costume from Pamela Jones delivers working class likely lass and rumpled academic gear; authentic support from sound (Giles Tanner) and light (Sean Hawkins) underpins the realistic business which evolves beyond the black space of The Court’s outer stage.

The study itself, designed by Harold Moot, is suggestively frayed at the edges, angled for interesting use by the two actors and full of clues as to the nature of its occupant. Frank used to be a poet. Now he is more of a small wheel whose uninspired direction is set by his masters. Behind the books in his crowded shelves is the whisky which boosts his passion these days. Beyond that is the pub and a failing marriage that shapes his days. He is taking this Open University course to help fund the booze.

Into this retreat bursts Rita, hairdresser by trade, ardent seeker of wisdom and truth through the education she imagines a course in English literature will supply. There is scope for both humour and poignancy in the Pygmalion-like trajectory of the teacher-pupil relationship. She is on the rise, he is probably not, unless he can find his own renaissance in Australia, whence he is eventually posted as a reprimand for being drunk at lectures. As she gains the confidence and conviction to make informed and independent choices about “everything”, his own world suffers in comparison. The crossover pattern in their relative status is compelling.

It is a simple enough story but, like all of Willy Russell’s creations, it works strongly on our feelings. Frank, teaching critical analysis, would dismiss these as “subjective” and even “sentimental” but the honesty of the characters is nevertheless as touching as it is funny. Even as we enjoy the sparks and frustrations the mismatched pair encounter in the course of essays and readings, we are also aware of their deeper implications and of what happens when the pupil becomes the teacher.

As Rita and Frank, Kathleen Burns and George Henare are beautifully cast and impeccable in action. Rita comes off the page in marvelously brash technicolour, assertive Scouse accent and all. That does not preclude sensitivity and a certain childlike vulnerability when her hopes are temporarily dashed by her tutor’s firm judgements.

George Henare plays Frank with skill and intelligence, which elevates the role well beyond a superficial Henry Higgins type. His slow almost reluctant kindling of affection for this exasperating student and the barely controlled vexation she brings are handled with marvelous precision.

For the audience, the experience is an entirely satisfying blend of what we hope will happen and what we fear cannot be avoided. That richness of impression and humour ranging from innocent clanger to sophisticated irony enhance a fine production.