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Production

Educating Rita

Company

Tour de Force Theatre

Reviewer

Deanne Tan

Date

09/02/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel

Rating

****

Chick Lit

In this entertaining tale of class difference and self-discovery, two polar opposites develop a friendship as a result of their common love for literature and learning. Shelley Atkinson plays Rita, a zesty young hairdresser from Liverpool who signs up for an Open University course so that she can understand art and culture. Her counter-point is lecturer Frank, a disillusioned academic who has only agreed to teach Open University because it pays for his drinking habit.

This could be another version of Pygmalion updated for Thatcherite England. However, the strength of Willy Russell's tale lies in the interaction between Rita and Frank, which is held aloft by a script that is full of wit and humanity. The gulf between the two characters is apparent from the opening scene, where a tipsy Frank is politely humouring his wife on the phone while he hunts for his hidden whiskey bottles between volumes of Eliot and Dickens. A fairly typical evening for a middle-aged career academic, one might think. Enter a loudly-dressed Rita, who drops things and is generally inappropriate, such as by commenting that an antique religious painting must have substituted for the lack of pornography in its time. The two develop an unlikely friendship, bonding over literature and finding comfort in their companionship.

Although Atkinson's brash Rita leans a little too far towards caricature at first, with her exaggerated earthiness and in-your-face ways. However, her disingenuousness pairs nicely with Frank's (Terench Frisch) supercilious cynicism, which comes close to complacency and decadence. Hence, while Rita's aesthetic sensibilities are on the ascent, Frank seems to have reached the high point of refinement and is tipping the other way, towards disdain and detachment. Some warm moments emerge as a result of Rita igniting some old spot of feeling in Frank, such as their bonding over Howards End, and Rita's unmediated passion for Shakespeare's Macbeth. But this happy period is short-lived.

As Rita makes new friends and discovers a hip, artsy-fartsy lifestyle, we start to wonder if she enjoys the boho-intellectual social scene more than the genuine pleasures of art and culture. Frank, whose decline into self-loathing becomes more apparent from his abuse of alcohol, feels that Rita has lost her personality and now marches to the drumbeat of the latest literary fad. Rita, on the other hand, feels she has outgrown Frank's teachings and now enjoys the freedom of forming her own opinions through discussions with her newfound community. As Frank's growing sense of inadequacy and loneliness grows, the more wretched he becomes, and we wonder if his estimation of Rita is less than objective.

The measured portrayal of these crucial transformations is entertaining and thought-provoking. There is enough substance in both the characters to set the audience thinking about Russell's deliberate ambiguities in the plot. Director Peter Joucla deliberately plays down some of these ambiguities, with effective subtlety, such as the suggestion of an affair between the two. In one scene, a harmless flirtation over whiskey in Frank's office insinuates that there may be more than meets the eye, especially with Rita's marital problems looming in the background. In another scene where Rita worries about the impact of Frank's drinking on his work, Frank's too-loud proclamation that his dismissal would have to be caused by worse offences, like the rape of a student, hangs in the air a beat too long.

Frisch's understated and careful portrayal of Frank turns him, the boring and unattractive one, into a far more interesting character than the dynamic Rita. Frank is finally asked to take a sabbatical in Australia, and he is packing up his things when Rita turns up after a long absence to say goodbye. Although the material collapse of Frank is tragic, especially in contrast to Rita who is vividly coming into her own, the lingering dregs of kinship between the two redeem the death of their friendship. As separation becomes their destiny, it seems to be all for the better, with a fifty-fifty chance that things would work out for Frank and Rita individually.

Educating Rita, on first glance, appears to be firmly located in Thatcherite-era England, given its various references to the pub, hairdresser shops and Liverpudlian working class culture (or the lack of it). However, the theme of social class ultimately comes second to the universal themes of education and art, mediated through the rich emotions of an unusual friendship. Guided by Joucla's deft direction, Frisch and Atkinson share a chemistry that lights up the stage, while maintaining enough separateness in their individual characters to illuminate the complexity of human connection.


"Guided by Joucla's deft direction, Frisch and Atkinson share a chemistry that lights up the stage, while maintaining enough separateness in their individual characters to illuminate the complexity of human connection"

Credits

Cast: Shelley Atkinson and Terence Frisch

Lighting: Filippo De Capitani

Stage Managment:Madeleine Bowyer

Sound: David Caron

Set: Rupert Turner

Art Promotion: Angelika Martin

Grantly Marshall and Gunnar Kuchn – Producers

More Reviews by Deanne Tan

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.