Educating Rita

Fri 5th – Sun 7th December 2014

reviews

Louise Message

at 14:54 on 7th Dec 2014

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Raving Mask’s decision to bring Willy Russell’s 1980 play, Educating Rita, to the Durham theatre scene was an incredibly canny one. The story follows Rita, an uneducated, Eliza Doolittle-esque housewife who abandons her working-class roots in favour of a true education: Ibsen, Chekov and Shakespeare under the supervision of disillusioned Open University lecturer, Frank Bryant.

Educating Rita is a play that balances the fine line between the genuinely touching without falling into mawkish sentimentality – to use Frank’s least favourite word. It is too easy for Rita to be played as the repressed housewife of soap melodrama and for Frank to be reduced to a drunken caricature. The play hinges wholly upon the performances of only two actors, and with lesser talents, the difficulties of staging Rita could have been easily realised. Thankfully, both Lily Morgan and Hugh Train delivered nuanced, expertly timed performances that managed to stay firmly on the right side of sentimental in two portrayals that I really cannot praise highly enough.

Everything about the production just seemed to work. Especially the setting. The choice of Castle’s MCR over Durham’s more conventional haunts was a smart one. A larger venue could have easily overwhelmed the performances but instead the audience was immersed into the realm of traditional academia by virtue of the room’s small yet imposing feel. The seating of Train at the desk, deep in thought, as the audience were entering lent a further realism, scrutinising the audience as thoroughly as Rita is over the course of the play.

What is more, the setting of Rita on the cusp of Castle’s prestigious, pristine prevents the play from feeling dated in any sense. The audience is drawn to the irony in contrasting the wariness of book learning that the play propounds with the comfortable settings of the college, steeped in scholarly tradition. This is an irony that did not appear to be wasted on neither Train nor Morgan, whose performances showcase the darker aspects that come with gaining an ‘education’.

Moving on to the performances, both Train and Morgan were excellent, though Morgan deserves special praise. She captures Rita’s dual role as the childlike, wide-eyed seeker of knowledge and as the unashamedly, down-to-earth no-nonsense hairdresser. Morgan’s refusal to sit still, flitting about the stage and her physical gestures all highlighted Rita’s vulnerability and restlessness. Notice must also be paid to her excellent comic timing. She delivered Rita’s more cutting lines with aplomb and it takes a special sort of actress to draw raucous laughter from the audience with the rattling of a door handle.

Train, in his depiction of Frank, was also near-flawless. For a young actor, he captured the world-weariness of the strung-out professor particularly well, as the audience’s attention is drawn just how far he has strayed from his initial promising path into academic and personal failure. While Frank’s disenchantment with the bastions of academia come to the fore, we also sense a sense of longing in Train’s depiction for something new, something better. And this is to be found in the character of Rita. Frank’s flirtations with the young housewife could easily wander into seedy territory, the time-old relationship of the mature professor and his young student. But Train infuses these lines with more of a genuine affection than a flirtation, preventing the play from falling into the cliché of the student/ teacher relationship.

But the play really needs to be seen in order to do it any sense of justice. It was a joy to see what could easily be a forgettable production handled with such skill. Though praise must go to Morgan and Train, the involvement of Ellie Gauge and Allegra Dowley must also be commended, for their thoughtful set and staging decisions made for a thoroughly watchable evening of drama.

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