Review: Educating Rita, Brighton Theatre Royal, Monday July 16

Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney
Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney

MICHAEL CAINE and Julie Walters set the bar high when they played Frank and Rita in the the iconic movie. Subsequent actors have had to make the roles their own and it’s a tribute to Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney that the Theatre Royal audience delivered curtain call after curtain call to their original and sparky performances.

I didn’t realise that Educating Rita is a semi-autobiographical play, drawing on writer Willy Russell’s own struggle to get into education after having left school destined to work in a factory.

He studied for an English literature at night school and finally won a college place but with little confidence in his academic ability.

He based the title on the Educating Archie radio show where the ventriloquist is outsmarted by his dummy and he wrote the play in 12 weeks, partly in the back room of his in-laws’ home in Liverpool.

It plays out over several consecutive scenes and the audience observe the gradual role reversal between disillusioned but erudite professor (Kelly) and his uneducated but intelligent and observant pupil, (Sweeney.)

Scenes are cleverly delineated as Frank dons shabby cardy after shabby cardy while Rita lets her hair down (literally) and swaps a hairdresser’s overall for flowing floral skirts.

The play wears its age well. Although class isn’t a factor in the interplay between the couple any more (although I bet it was when it was written in the 1980’s,) control plays a part. Rita’s husband who wants her to settle down and have a baby, burns her course books and papers as her confidence grows. She leaves him, moves into a flat with a friend and takes off on a summer course, finally passing her exams with honours.

Frank watches her with proud bemusement and even his vulnerability begins to show as heavy drinking threatens to overwhelm his lecture career....’I fell off the podium but carried on talking, and didn’t stop as I climbed back up again.’ The bottles of Bells are cunningly concealed on his library shelves behind Y for Yeats and W for Waugh.

While he finally packs for his move to ‘the boondocks’ of central Australia, Rita is now in a position to make her own choices about how she will live her life. She might join him; she might not.

I remember Matthew Kelly from “Stars in their Eyes”....’And now Matthew I am going to be.....

Diana Ross.’ He brought sympathy to that role and he brings empathy to Frank. His charisma fills the sweetie-box Theatre Royal auditorium and he moves about the stage with authority, never declaiming while uttering every word with total believability.

I was less impressed with Claire Sweeney who is beautiful and word perfect in this demanding two-part performance but felt she was more a TV or movie actress, conversing with Frank side-on to the audience so the subtlety was slightly lost.

However this stage production of Educating Rita brings a fresh dimension to a familiar tale and the script is up-to-the-minute, sharp and thought provoking. A wonderful evening out at this gem of a theatre.