A smart and guilty pleasure
There’s an awful lot more to Willie Russell’s “Educating Rita” than perhaps is sometimes acknowledged. Russell’s hugely popular play from 1980 in which working class and middle class cultures collide, finding uncommon ground as the educated class, raises serious questions on class, society, and education. As well as on gender. “Educating Rita” unashamedly advocates for the empowerment of women. On their right to choose, independently and on their own terms, what they want to do with their lives and their bodies. Which, sadly, is still a pressing issue thirty-seven years later. On top of all that, it’s damn funny too. Steeped in charm, awash with laughter, with two terrifically engaging performances, Lyric Theatre Belfast’s current take on Russell’s classic sees the action moved to sectarian Belfast in 1980, in a production which has a lot to like, and even a little to love, including a terrific performance by Kerri Quinn.
Russell’s modern take on Pygmalion sees poet and professor, Frank, in between glasses of whiskey, creating an educated ‘Frankenstein’ who goes by the name Rita. A working-class hairdresser, the soul searching Rita, aka Susan, signs up for an Open University arts course where Frank provides critical tutorials on Forster, Blake, and all the literary greats. Initially Frank and Rita don't do boundaries, with all sorts of personal details being exchanged as Rita desperately tries to avoid working on the education she so desperately wants. Something Frank doesn’t really want her to have, fearing she will become insufferable and pretentious and lose her original spirit. This proves costly as the determined Rita comes to reject the values of her creator and, deliberately or unconsciously, begins to reject him also, from her life, her thoughts, and her decisions. If, in the end, what really matters is having a choice, that brings with it questions of what will you do when you have it, and what will you choose for yourself and those around you?
While still relevant in many respects, “Educating Rita” is very much a product of its time. Like the eponymous Rita, Russell himself was a former hairdresser from working-class Liverpool where, culturally, work was more valued than education. This at a time when the Open University was starting to take off, broadcasting programmes on BBC late in the night or during the early hours of the morning, offering many the opportunity to pursue a path into higher education for the first time. Distance and online college courses might be easily accessible today, but back then the Open University was something new, brave, and exciting. Something that offered options. And with options, choice. Choices not previously available to many, particularly women. This theme of women’s self-empowerment is obviously important to director, Emma Jordan, and is one she handles with conviction, passion, and sensitivity.
Yet in Belfast in 1980 there were additional concerns for a young woman, different to those of a young Liverpool girl at that time. Concerns which director Emma Jordan also seeks to explore by moving the setting from Liverpool to Belfast. But here she doesn’t go deep enough. With loose musical references, including Van Morrison and Stiff Little Fingers, some radio interviews on the Hunger Strikes and a cobbled in helicopter sound effect, the Belfast connection feels forced and underdeveloped. Indeed, it comes across as more of a seasoning rather than as a central ingredient, adding a hint of flavour in places, but nothing that really suggests newer or fresher perspectives of any huge significance.
Performatively, Jordan ensures “Educating Rita” has lots of snap and pace. If design throughout is competent, it’s rarely compelling, but set and costumes do the job sufficiently. Only Sarah-Jane Shiels's lighting design shows that extra level of invention. What are compelling are its two engaging performances. Michael James Ford as the self-loathing, self-destructive Frank, understands that Frank is always the straight man to the wild and wonderful Rita, and perfectly pitches his performance in accordance. If Kerri Quinn initially takes a little while settle, with her accent needing a little time to tune in to, she more than compensates with a style and presence that takes Russell’s iconic character and makes it her own. Indeed, aside from some projection issues, Quinn was a sheer delight throughout and utterly mesmerising to watch.
Lyric Theatre Belfast’s production of “Educating Rita” exudes a warm, welcoming cosiness, a sense of curling up in a familiar bed on a cold, frosty night. You’ve been here before, you know it well, but you just want to indulge in the pleasure it gives. Yet there’s also a penetrating intelligence at work, one which has much to say on a variety of themes. In the end, “Educating Rita” may well be something of a guilty pleasure, but it’s an incredibly smart one at times, and a pleasure made all the more enjoyable for being so.
“Educating Rita” by Willie Russell, produced by Lyric Theatre Belfast, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until March 25th before continuing its national tour.