'Educating Rita' is one of two plays in a season of work written by Willy Russell. The other play in the season is Russell's equally famous, 'Shirley Valentine'. Watching these two plays consecutively is quite instructive because there are many similarities. The main underlying themes are dissatisfaction with life, the desire to change and the need to get more out of life through personal development.
Set in Liverpool, 'Educating Rita' is the story of a young woman who is tired of both her lot as a hairdresser and her life in general. She's so desperate to change that she's even started calling herself Rita rather than use her real name, Susan. More than anything else, she wants to be educated and has joined an Open University degree course to achieve her goal. Rita has been assigned a tutor called Frank, who regards teaching undergraduates as a torment, and can only survive by imbibing copious quantities of scotch and frequenting the pub on a nightly basis. Frank initially resists taking on Rita as a student because he immediately recognises that she is not like other students, and he actually believes that he can't teach her anything of value. However, he fails to factor-in Rita's forceful personality, will to change, and also the fact that she instantly takes a liking to him.
As the story develops, Frank (played by Tim Pigott-Smith) becomes more and more attracted to Rita as he sees in her a refreshing contrast with the stereotypical students he normally encounters and loathes. But Rita – played by Laura Dos Santos – changes as she acquires more knowledge and Frank starts to see emerging in Rita what he dislikes most in the world of academia, and a collision course is inevitably set.
The partnership in this intimate and intriguing two-hander works well on many levels. The script depends for its effect on the initial cavernous difference in the social status of the two characters, and here these differences are well-defined. Obviously influenced by the definitive portrayal of Rita by Julie Walters in the 1983 film version, Laura Dos Santos still manages to invigorate Rita with her own spirit and fizz. In particular, she makes the transition from working class hairdresser to newly-qualified, intellectual bohemian not only believable, but also quite effortless, and it was largely in the second half where I felt she really made the role her own. Tim Pigott-Smith, starts off as a fairly traditional kind of academic with only his drinking as a visible sign of his disaffection with his work and life. But as his protege gains in confidence and intellectual maturity, the drink takes over, turning Frank into little more than an academic wreck, and a rather sorry sight for a poet who once had considerable promise.
For me, 'Educating Rita' is the more powerful play in this Willy Russell season because it deals with deeper and more complex issues. Of course, both these plays are now, more or less, modern classics, and they remain fresh because of Russell's sharp, intelligent and witty scripts that respect and understand the human condition.