Review: Educating Rita (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 21)

Educating Rita. copyright catherine ashmore.
Educating Rita. copyright catherine ashmore.

It is hard to believe that Willy Russell’s masterpiece Educating Rita is now more than 30 years old.

So many contemporary plays already seem dated that audiences go along to new productions of the 1980 work hoping for solid performances from the leads and a freshness that keeps this modern-day Pygmalion story alive.

n the current UK tour, directed by Tamara Harvey, expectations are surpassed: thanks to two glorious performances from Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney (who come to the tour having received accolades during the play’s run at the Menier, the play sparkles and remains warm, witty, and well-written.

The joy of this production is how natural the performers are working together in this two-hander, and their easy on-stage relationship gives added energy and zest to the see-saw of moods, emotions, and personal journeys.

As Rita, Claire Sweeney is every inch the brash thirty-something working class hairdresser eager for self-development and we follow her escape from the cheap culture of her surroundings and upbringing to a level of confidence, empowerment and sophistication of which even Eliza Doolittle might have felt uncomfortable. It’s a nicely-judged performance from this consistently fine actress and she manages to make us feel slightly uncomfortable as the more her intellect grows the less personable and more superficial she becomes. Has the professor created a Frankenstein’s monster or a girl who can hold her own in any society?

She is matched line for line by Matthew Kelly (looking remarkably like Russell himself), once again displaying his great abilities as a stage actor. As the alcoholic and cynical middle-aged Open University tutor Frank he manages to evoke loathing and sympathy, becoming jealous of his protege’s new-found social skills and advanced learning when perhaps he wanted to mould her into his image and thinking in a Shavian way. While his professional descent is charted, Kelly manages to show that it is his journey that may well be leading to greater satisfaction, with new opportunities open to him by the ending.

The transitions from scene to scene are the least effective part of this otherwise pleasing production - mostly marked by Kelly changing a sweater or cardigan and together with the lighting giving no real sense of what time has passed. It’s not a major grumble, but it does affect the fluidity of the piece and, especially in the long first half, leads to the audience wondering where the interval is coming.

But thanks to the convincing casting of Sweeney and Kelly, this is a great revival and ensures Educating Rita is as profound, humorous, and colourful as ever.

David Guest