Theatre review: Educating Rita

Educating Rita by Willy Russell starring Claire Sweeney and Matthew Kelly at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, July 7. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

RITA does not have to come from Liverpool. She can be any young woman who comes to education late and is so thirsty for knowledge that when her tutor asks what she wants to learn, she replies: “Everything.”

When the play was first performed in 1980 and became a film in 1983, any woman who had re-routed herself from typing, hairdressing or motherhood into education, saw herself in Rita. That generation had seen the expansion of free education as never before.

The character encapsulated the nervousness, enthusiasm, delight and sheer gauche inventiveness of someone seeing the quirkiness of literature for the first time – someone who thought Yates meant “The wine lodge” (or that Wordsworth’s The Ruined Cottage was a building.)

Frank, Rita’s tutor, embodied the eloquent world-weariness of an unfulfilled academic who knows other people’s work but hasn’t had much success with his own. The balance of the play is that they change places. She learns about literature – though he fears by the end that she has sacrificed her original thought merely to learn how to think like other people. But he is still just as lost in his inability to handle the world – even the one he lives in.

Claire Sweeney’s Rita is the character as she might be 30 years on, more strident than diffident and more likely to be angry than always laugh at her setbacks. Matthew Kelly’s Frank doesn’t quite have the original’s on-going bitterness, peppered with the occasional glimpse of hope. He is more resigned. Perhaps today’s Frank would just be glad he wasn’t subject to the cuts. You no longer have to “bugger the bursar” to get the sack.

The first night audience at the Arts chuckled throughout and whooped at the end of the show. Today, Rita may not be able to afford to get a literary education, even at the Open University. There would be fewer surprises for her in the tutorials because she could look up so much on the great educator, Google, but the play is as pertinent as ever.