Theatre in Wales

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First Class Honours for the Actors

At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru-Educating Rita , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , April 28, 2013
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru-Educating Rita Sheridan Morley was there when “Educating Rita” had its first press night in 1980. The review he left is concise, acute and has lost nothing with the passing of the decades. He notes the indebtedness to “Pygmalion” and Simon Gray’s “Butley”, “earlier and better plays.” That a company like the Royal Shakespeare Company opts for a slender two-hander he regards as “a gesture of eccentricity.”

“Educating Rita” has one factor truly in its favour. It offers an exuberant, extended part for a young woman, of a kind that is infrequent in modern theatre writing. Katie Elin-Salt has already done Little Voice, a bigger, sadder, deeper role. Her Rita is the centre of the production, a joy to watch, a huge audience-delighter in Aberystwyth, indeed the production’s slim justification. Rita’s first-act effervescence moves to radiance in the second, with her return from immersion in the Open University’s Summer School.

John Updike, with characteristic pith and observation, noted alcoholics’ “way they get the world to assume the burden of their misbehaviour.” The easy way to portray alcoholics is via a slur and a bit of stubble. It is a means to objectivise a pathology; but alcoholics are around us invisibly the whole time, and mostly they walk, talk and dress like the rest of us. They are betrayed by their solipsism. Richard Elfyn and director Emma Lucia get it right. The Frank in this production is an untethered object, floating between lassitude and passivity, fired by Rita into connections beyond that to the Famous Grouse, which he keeps neatly filed next to William Faulkner.

Not only does Katie Elin-Salt animate Frank’s vast book-strewn office, but her absences off-stage are busy. Ruth Hall has put together a range of costumes to colourfully mirror the thrill of Rita’s intellectual emancipation. The second act opening of jacket and hat is a nice nod to “Annie Hall”, another fictional woman of spirit who predated Rita by two years.

Mobile and laptop invade this office, and they jar visually. Willy Russell’s script is deftly light on references that pin it down to 1979. DVD’s get a mention, which must be a later interpolation. Karaoke came later too- it made its major cultural debut in 1989 in “When Harry Met Sally”. A metaphor like “napalm the ratatouille” is an image taken from its time. Verbally it is mainly free-floating, but the play is soaked in the spirit of its time.

The creation of the Open University was the act of Harold Wilson’s governments in which he took the greatest personal pride. It is hard now to appreciate both its radicalism and the liberation it offered to tens of thousands. Frank’s references are to Leavis rather than Lyotard. Today, he would last a fraction of the two years that it takes the play’s university to banish him to Australia. In an era of Powerpoint-driven learning points, his one-on-one tuition and lines like “You have a much better understanding of something if you discover it in your own terms” would be a source of astonishment. It is not the laptop age.

“Thought provoking, funny and moving… a comic masterpiece and a modern stage classic” runs the publicity. Hyperbole is the refuge of the desperate. “Educating Rita” has a genuine emotional core and touches an audience. But lightly touches is not the same as “moving”. As for “thought provoking” [sic] no, it is not, not in the teeniest bit. Sheridan Morley back in 1980 signed off, accurately, with “Mr Russell has yet to find his play an effective end, but for all that “Educating Rita” is a lot of fun.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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