Review: Johnson does a brilliant job as the sassy hairdresser in Educating Rita

Educating Rita is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Monday 29 July to Saturday 3 August.

Educating Rita is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Monday 29 July to Saturday 3 August. - Credit: Archant

Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita is powerful, moving and absolutely hilarious.

Russell's themes of 1960's gender roles and class barriers, while maybe not so relevant in the modern age, will still resonate with many people 30 years after the writer put pen to paper.

Rita (Jessica Johnson) is a hairdresser from a working class area of Liverpool, who, at 29, feels trapped by her lifestyle and the lack of aspiration she sees in the community around her. She enrols on an Open University course and in the opening scene we see her being interviewed by her English tutor Frank (Stephen Tompkinson).

Russell's sharp and precise writing allows us to share the ups and downs of Rita's academic journey, which, in turn, sees her develop and grow into a strong, independent, opinionated and confident woman.

Frank, however, is disillusioned. His dreams of being a great poet have long ago been shelved due to the pressure of the education system and the necessity to work and he seeks solace in alcohol.

Frank does enough to keep his head above water, but is shaken out of his stupor by the lively and invigorating Rita.

While Frank is the teacher, he soon realises he has much to learn from his new pupil, the sassy Rita.

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Johnson does a brilliant job with the fast-paced dialogue, although at times her accent made it difficult to understand her. She also moved about the stage at such a pace that occasionally a few words were lost.

Johnson also dealt with some of the serious themes of the play with great aplomb. There is a beautiful moment when she is explaining to Frank that she missed a dinner party at his house because she felt she wouldn't fit in. She explains that she went to the pub with her husband and her mother and during the evening her mother begins to cry and says 'they should be singing better songs'.

This becomes a metaphor for Rita's life as she no longer feels she fits into the world around her where everyone is pretending to be happy, but starved of aspirations and dreams.

Rita leaves the course with her qualification, but more importantly she tells Frank, she now has choices.

Educating Rita is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until August 3. Contact the box office on: 01223 503333 or