Educating Rita – Perth Theatre

Written by Willy Russell

Directed by Martin McCormick

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A knock on the door. Well, a few knocks. A few knocks and a kick. That’s how audiences are introduced to Rita, who isn’t just barrelling down the door but opening a barrage directly into the cultural gatekeeping of class – the value and art of criticism and the life force which can, and should be, offered from expanding one’s horizons.

Looking to expand their horizons, booking themselves onto an Open University course, a young hairdresser enrols to gain a tighter grasp on literature, poetry, and the more cultured form of liberal arts. Educating Rita is one of Willy Russell’s triumphant masterpieces chartering a turning point in a working-class woman’s life and the realisation of growth without the sacrifice of who they are. This is, and always has been, a clean and straightforward two-hander production: a testament to creating something delectable with limited but quality ingredients. Opening at Perth Theatre, Martin McCormick’s staging of Educating Rita serves as a sensationally sharp and appealing revival of the theatre’s revived subscription series.

The set-up and punchline of Russell’s humour evolve into heavy one-handers, each a telling sliver of character and eventual truths behind the perms and pints. A story of the accessibility of education and the gatekeeping of cultural class in enriching one’s life steadily drips into the familiar world we find ourselves in: education as a business rather than a right. There is undoubtedly an ironic pang in the immediacy and longing Rita has for a liberal arts education, a culture shift which is now so dreadfully at the mercy of cuts, misunderstandings, and outright eradication.

Russel’s Rita remains one of the nation’s most ardent and lasting comedies, and one which never alters too heavily in re-staging – chiefly in its continuing relevance: if it ain’t broke et al. And forty years apart from the setting of the show – class division sits at an even more tumultuous level, McCormick taking this entirely, and plainly, in their stride when constructing this production.

Rachael-Rose McLaren does justice to an iconic role championed by women on stage for the last forty years and the indisputable wonder Julie Walters from the 1983 film. It’s clearly their take, with a few borrowed elements – but Rita is still quick in mind and sharp in delivery. The physicality McLaren employs develops over time – the tightly clenched fists relaxing or for a more fluid motion, yet still determined as Rita’s self-confidence and academic nature flourishes.

Their initial reverence for Frank, a safeguarded lecturer and one-time poet with a disdain for his students, whose tired and disillusioned eyes glitter with the intrigue of this new student, begins to diminish. With every step forward Rita takes, a lurch for Frank sinks him deeper into the eventual desperation of drink and snide remarks as his career fades.

Among the remnants of privilege, unappreciative of position and possession, Gray O’Brien’s undertaking of the mantle of Frank wins over audiences, even with the now unpleasantly sexual predation he exhibits through the production. Yet the pair clearly and confidently together, ensuring that the audience stills finds sympathy with them, just a differing moment; as Rita first enters this office, right down to Frank’s removal of his things.

Tempting, muted Autumnal woods and leathers, a hodgepodge of ill-thought-out creature comforts – there’s something to the lackadaisical lavishness of Frank’s office pushes the audience in siding with Rita’s enjoyment, even longing for what it symbolises. Karen Tennent’s is spacious, but still intimate to offer little room for the characters to escape one another under Colin Grenfell’s lighting – the large ornate desk and book nooks to conceal his libations act as both status symbols, even barriers, before relaxing out.

The period may be conducive to the charm, but Educating Rita’s continued relevance today still reverberates with each new production. McCormick’s staging serves as a safe, confident, and downright hilarious entry into Perth’s newly revived subscription service. And with a quality such as this is entirely worth the gander and subscription. Shirley, Mrs Johnstone, and Rita: there’s a reason for the tremendous success and longevity of these tales, and it’s got a lot to do with their authenticity, pertinence and strong performances – something this production has in lashings.

Downright Hilarious

Educating Rita runs at Perth Theatre until April 1st. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm. Thursday and Saturday at 14.30pm.
Running time – One hour and fifty minutes including interval. Suitable for ages 12+
Tickets begin from £15.00 and may be obtained here.


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