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Rita finally Graduates

The Student becomes the Master

This most recent tour of Willy Russell’s timeless classic, Educating Rita, comes to a final close this week at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, a fitting location for local lead Jessica Johnson’s graduation.

Since April 2017 when Jess played Rita at the Gala, Durham, she has taken the role of Rita to be very much her own. Of course, the immortal genius of Russell’s writing creates a landscape in which actors have freedom to develop, but having seen this incarnation a number of times over the past 4 years, it is Johnsons’s own development that is just as impressive as the journey the titular Rita takes. Always confident in the role, there was added depth and strength to last night’s performance borne from the brilliant on-stage chemistry and Jess’s commitment to her craft.

The story is well known and much loved; Rita wants to change her mundane life, breakaway from the cultural expectations of her family, peers, husband and feed her desire to learn and grow. She embarks on an English Literature OU course and, paired with disillusioned (and often drunk) professor Frank (the incomparable Stephen Tompkinson), she discovers the classics, Shakespeare, poetry and critical thinking. As much as Rita grows, Frank shrinks into his bottles of well hidden scotch, ruing his own lost passions and resenting the freedom and possibilities Rita now uncovers. His descent into self-pity is akin to Victor Frankenstein’s love and then hatred for his monster – it is not the monster’s fault it became what the Dr created, nor is it Rita’s fault Frank gave her the freedom to think for herself, which he then struggles to accept.

As is to be expected with a Russell masterpiece, the wit and comedic observations are packed into this 2 hander, juxtaposed against the still current social constraints of ‘change is bad’ and ‘know your place’. The great set (Franks study, filled with dusty books, student papers and the aforementioned bottles of booze) is both claustrophobic to Frank and enlightening to Rita; what are his prison walls are her gates to freedom, and even his impending trip to Australia (due to an unfortunate, drunken incident with the Bursar) does little to break him from his captive mindset.

It may be a long time before we again get to see such wonderful on-stage unity from 2 actors totally immersed in their art. Don’t miss out on this final leg of the tour.

Thank you Jessica and Stephen for a wonderful journey and who knows, perhaps Mr Russell could be tempted to write a follow up - Rita the Teacher anyone?

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