Theatre in Wales

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At the Sherman

Sherman Theatre Company- Educating Rita , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , June 9, 2006
At the Sherman by Sherman Theatre Company- Educating Rita Odd to think that when Willy Russell’s masterpiece was first produced nearly thirty years ago it was seen as an of-the-moment social comedy about the denial of access to education for working people, about the destruction of working-class culture, Liverpudlian humour… all very Eighties (though it was actually written in 1979).

But here we are in Cardiff in the Noughties and this remarkable comedy is still urgent, intelligent, perceptive and political. And very funny and moving.

Some people don’t like Educating Rita, for quite opposite reasons – some on the left think it patronising and sexist, some on the right simplistically socialist. I declare an partiality, because I actually think the play (though not the film) is rather good, a perceptive and clever work that when done well tickles the brain, makes you laugh out loud and brings a lump to your throat – and this new version is done very well.

For the few of you who may not know the story, it’s fairly simple on the surface: a 29 year-old hairdresser decides she needs an education and enrols at an Open University course where her tutor is a disillusioned middle-aged ex-poet with an indiscriminate liking for whiskey.

Now where it goes from here is open to interpretation. What we can see is that Rita learns the difference between Jane Austen and Ethel Austin, leaves her husband, discovers Blake and passes her exams; Frank, her tutor, on the other hand, slides downhill as he starts to feel that in introducing Rita to academia he is destroying her basic honesty – and maybe cares about her a bit too much.

In a post-feminist world, or at least in Phil Clark’s imaginative production for his Sherman Theatre Company, this is almost totally Rita’s story, the tale of her long journey from oppression and frustration to self-empowerment. Frank, the male elitist, is as surely heading for his nadir as much as Rita is in the ascendant and their positions end up reversed – she a confident, charismatic woman, he an emotionally-wrecked alcoholic sentenced to transportation to Australia as a visiting lecturer to explore Fosters more than E M Forster.

In that sense, this production may for some be a little sentimental and simplistic, the subtleties of the debate about, for example, the loss of your own culture or academic elitism downplayed. A crucial element in the stage play, as opposed to the film, is that it’s set in one claustrophobic room where the window has never been opened and it takes a Rita to oil the lock on the door – here we never see the door and Rita’s long journey starts from offstage, through great pyramids of books.

And Frank’s relationship with his student is just what he warned her as a critic never to be – subjective, and here we see him gradually fall in love with Rita to the extent of breaking down and crying when he can’t find her. Well done, neat, but maybe emphasising too much that in today’s world we have no real sympathy for his perspective.

But if you want just one reason for seeing the show, it is Ruth Jones’s marvellous Rita. By transferring the action from Liverpool to Cardiff, Clark has helped erase the ghost of Julie Walters from the role and Ms Jones (who, as she reminded me, I first reviewed when she was a member of the National Youth Theatre in the 1980s) is marvellously Cardiffian, entirely taking ownership of the character.

At times she and Steve Spiers (another successful NYTW product), as Frank, expose their recent screen experience but by the end they are both acting as if they’d hardly left stage careers behind them – Spiers relies less on small mannerisms and sitcom characterisation and does find a different Frank, even if we aren’t that convinced.

Phil Clark has designed as well as directed the play and his set, half-thrust into the auditorium, is an impressive landscape of piled-up tomes as pillars supporting the very edifice of academe and with only a porthole on a world that switches from terraced-house Cardiff to up-market erotic art.

The modernisations and change of local references work well, as does the soundtrack, from the wonderful Amy Wadge (especially her Manic covers: the first line of Design for Life so appropriate, of course) to the still-remarkable Cerys Matthews, making this an unexpectedly outstanding production of a well-worn modern classic. Popular theatre at its best.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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