by Willie Russell
Directed by Michael Buffong
Designer Ellen Cairns
Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre
Wednesday 1st July 2015 14.45
Lenny Henry as Frank
Lashana Lynch as Rita
Open University Tuto, Frank
A box in a charity bookshop. Stuffed full of examination “Pass Notes” from various publishers. An uncomfortable selection : Hamlet, Great Expectations, The Color Purple, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Macbeth, Educating Rita, Romeo & Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby. If I ask you to spot the two that are of significantly lesser quality, you’re not going to have much trouble, are you? Two of them are GCSE exam specials, there because they tick the right PC boxes and are an educationalist’s idea of what the kids would like. Educating Rita updates Pygmalion / My Fair Lady so has words like fuck, wank and wanker in the script instead of Bernard Shaw’s then shocking bloody. AND it’s about a Northern working class female, failed by “the system,” who wins through. Actually the only ones who didn’t pay attention in this production were two teenage girls near us, who groaned and pretended to be asleep from the first second. Ah, well, as set exam books go, I think it’s way better than that perennial of many years ago, John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, though nowhere near as good as that other perennial, The Great Gatsby.
We have seen (Sir) Lenny Henry in The Comedy of Errors and in Fences. The initial press on Educating Rita was so universally bad, that we nearly decided to bin our tickets and not bother. Apparently, (Sir) Lenny Henry dried on press night and had to walk off, and the reviews went for the jugular. I think it’s the “Sir” that rankles with the theatrical establishment … but it was earned for years of selfless work on Comic Relief, not for stage work. I’d give him a knighthood because my kids enjoyed TisWAs so much. Funny, last week I saw “two star” reviews (e.g. The Sunday Times – “Without a convincing Frank, Michael Buffomg’s production can only stutter along”) but this week they’ve switched to three (four from Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail).
The set with Rita asking if the picture’s meant to be erotic.
I was glad it got knocked, in that I went expecting a poor to dire production, which it certainly wasn’t, and I was delighted by the massive applause and shouts and hoots at the end, all well-deserved. I thought Lenny and Lashana felt vindicated too. Much better when a play exceeds expectations. I suspect that he’s grown into the role. I also noted that the theatre clock said it would end at 17.20, but it ended at 17.10. To me that suggests a lot of sharpening up had taken place. Or maybe they cut a scene for the matinee. I think the former.
I have in-built prejudice against one set plays with a cast of two and lots of monologues, but having said that, the distorted bookshelves and study looked marvellous. I once did John Whiting’s Saint’s Day at university, and we covered the stage with three vanloads of secondhand books which the cast had to wade through. It was a bit like that. Actually going out, we glanced at the books that ended up on the edge … Ovid and Proust. This was not a random selection.
Act 1: Frank and Rita
Act 1: Later hairstyle, popping in from work at the salon
The title is Educating Rita. It is obviously “her story.” They worked very well together, but inevitably the Open University tutor, Frank, is a feed or foil for the Liverpudlian hairdresser, Rita, who is seeking a literary education. It is a superb role for a young actress who can do accents. Lashana Lynch was fresh, exuberant, lively, engaging at all times. There are many short scenes. Lenny Henry stayed on, changed jackets or cardigans, loosened or did up ties. Rita goes off every time, only to reappear in a startling new costume. The costume designer deserves an award. She goes though at least five wigs. At the start, she has an exuberant Afro (she is a hairdresser) and bright chain store clothes. Then we see her get a Diana Ross more permed straight and waved style … and she appears in panic in her pink salon work apron. She’s having problems with husband Denny who’s burned her books and essays when he finds out she’s on the pill, not trying for a baby, thus a more conventional hair do to fit in.
Frank gets a pen as a gift from Rita … start of Act II, so ethnic
In Act II, she has just been to an Open University week. Her bright pink lipstick has gone altogether. She has African ethnic clothes and headband and exotic hair. Denny has been dumped. She’s living in a flat with Trish.
As she gets into student life, she becomes more student casual … short lighter curly hair and dungarees. She’s now working in a bistro, not the hairdressing salon. She’s mixing with students, much to Frank’s jealousy. Finally,having passed her exams, she has a smart coat, smart trouser suit and short well-cut hair. In this one, the costumes really tell the story. As she says early on, if you haven’t got anything to think about, you buy a dress.
Lenny Henry was relaxed, and always impressive. It’s hard to play degrees of drunkeness with such aplomb. One tiny thing, he had two places where he said ‘Yes, yes.’ and I thought both sounded uncomfortable for him. I reckon on a modern script you need leeway for adaptation. There are many substitutes for ‘Yes, Yes’ for mild irritation, and I’d have been inclined to let the actor find one that fell naturally for him.
But both were very good indeed the afternoon we saw them.
**** Four Stars (so there!)
Rita took out cigarettes, but never lit them.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Fences by August Wilson,
All My Sons by Arthur Miller, Talawa Theatre
All My Sons by Arthur Miller, Talawa Theatre