Actor Stephen Tompkinson expresses thanks to audiences as show goes on for opening night of Educating Rita at Grand Theatre

Educating Rita with Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson
Educating Rita with Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson

The relevance of Willy Russell's Educating Rita in these most uncertain times was not lost on opening night in Blackpool as bosses at the Grand Theatre released a statement shortly after 5.30pm to say the show would go on.

“But it’s not takin’ the place of life, it’s providing’ me with life," expresses Rita as she tells Frank how art and literature is feeding for the soul.

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank

How poignant. It is with no doubt that exact form of escapism is what had pulled together a limited but defiant audience under one roof of the beautiful Matcham designed theatre for what was supposed to be the opening night of a five night run.

Question marks now hang over the curtains for remaining performances following the uncertainty surrounding the government's latest guidance as they escalated isolation measures in the the wake of the spread of Covid-19.

But it was with a duty of care to those that had travelled and looked forward to seeing the 40th anniversary production that compelled Stephen Tompkinson, who grew up on the Fylde coast and co-star Jessica Johnson to push ahead with their critically acclaimed tour last night.

Speaking at the the end of the performance, overwhelmed with the response, loud cheers and a much deserved standing ovation from his home audience, the 54-year-old expressed his thanks to those who had supported the show.

Stephen Tompkinson, Jessica Johnson and Willy Russell

Stephen Tompkinson, Jessica Johnson and Willy Russell

He said they felt with the late timing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Monday evening briefing they had, had a 'duty of care and responsibility' to press ahead with the scheduled show for those who had travelled and made plans.

"Our biggest thanks to you all, it really does mean so much and please take care," he said. He added at that time they were uncertain what decisions would be made relating to the remaining performances.

One of the standout line from Russell's script came to mind as Frank talks about his clouded existence: “Life is such a rich and frantic whirl that I need the drink to help me step delicately through it.”

There will be many in that camp right now. Stephen spoke in our interview last week how audiences have been so receiving of Frank and despite it's firm setting in 1980, it is very easy to understand why.

Such brilliance, wit and frustration in one. The meaning of life as understood by the different classes is a core theme of the play and as we wrestle in our communities - never had a form of theatre been more uplifting.

Interestingly it is the enthusiasm and the 'positive polly' in Rita that sucks you in. Nothing is going to prevent her pursuit for freedom and nothing will get in the way of her experiencing life.

No doubt a little of her rubbing off on Johnson as she pushed herself wholeheartedly into the role she has embraced and evolved within the last year and without impediment of a current pandemic.

It is the talk of 'accepted rituals' Rita has to learn to adhere to that were wrapped in irony - to press on in our day to day, we're all having to give up a little more of ourselves piece by piece. But being able to laugh has never felt so good.

Then there is Frank's definitions of tragedy - his inability to grow as a person as his flaws swallow him whole and prevent his life being more meaningful. It's hard-hitting, emotional, layered in wit and irony as he slowly moves from professor to student.

What will be tragic is if more are not be able to experience this most joyous piece on this dedicated 40th anniversary tour.

Russell himself says he does not know what the formula is behind it's enduring magic "If I did I'd write it, sell it for a lot of money and people could bottle it."

Indeed. This is a play that is still very much held in great affection all we can hope is that the show will go on someway, somehow.