Rita’s character (played by Jessica Johnson) empowers herself throughout the play with the choices she makes. She is self-deprecating to begin with, and although she gains in confidence, she still gives the credit to Frank for her development – even though all the significant changes are a result of her own actions.
In contrast – Frank (played by Stephen Tomkinson) behaves entirely inappropriately. His job was to teach Rita to think and write critically, but he develops an unhealthy emotional attachment to her, becoming jealous of her life outside of his tutorials. His alcoholism is fueled by his lack of emotional maturity, and he chooses to burden the women in his life with the insecurities he is incapable of dealing with alone. This is clear in the way he talks about his romantic relationships, and the presumptuous way he invites Rita into his personal life.
The first time Frank mentions being attracted to Rita he talks about running away with her. Consider the context – a much older man in a position of authority makes suggestive comments towards a young married student. He doesn’t stop to consider the impact of such an inappropriate suggestion on what should be a professional relationship, and little is made of it by the writer.
There is one tiny trans/homophobic moment which most audience members wouldn’t have picked up on. At one point, Frank refers to himself by a woman’s name in a pointedly camp way designed to get a laugh from the audience. There were many amusing moments throughout the performance, where puns, sarcasm, wordplay, comedic timing and a small amount of slapstick were used to excellent effect. This particular joke struck me as an unnecessary cheap shot in what is an otherwise very cleverly-written piece.
Privilege is addressed in an interesting way in this play. Frank doesn’t recognise his own privilege when he invites Rita to dinner. He can’t understand what barriers she might face to entering that environment, and I feel this is a reflection of a wider issue. There is often discussion about how to make university education and the arts more accessible to people from different backgrounds – but most of these conversations are being had by middle class people, rather than the people who face these barriers directly.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the way Rita’s character has been written. Men so often get female characters badly wrong, but this seemed like a relatively sensitive portrayal. Having said that – I’m a middle class man, so not in the best position to judge the accuracy of a working class female character.
Both actors gave a great performance, with the perfect balance of outlandishness and realism. The chemistry between them is good, and they received a standing ovation from the Theatre Royal audience on opening night. I found the literary references accessible, despite not having a great deal of knowledge of the subject, and I would recommend this show as a humourous and heart-warming portrayal of two parallel human journeys.
© Starbuck Friend 2019
Willy Russell’s Educating Rita will stay at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 15th June 2019. Tickets £10.00-£29.50 For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk