A timeless education in class

Con O'Neill & Leanne Best in Educating Rita
Con O'Neill & Leanne Best in Educating Rita
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Educating Rita

Liverpool Playhouse

Until March 7

The stage resembles a circular library, shades of the old Picton, with a giant snowball in the middle which, when the action starts, revolves into a screen depicting film shots from 1979, David Bowie, Mrs Thatcher,etc., the year the play was written.

Then we see Con McNeill, as Frank, a disillusioned and cynical middle-aged lecturer doing a bit of extra tuition for the Open University to help pay for his drinking.

In walks his first student, a girl in her20s who announces herself as Rita. ‘I want to learn everything and change my life,’ she tells him. She’s already changed her name, believing Susan to be too working class.

She is a hairdresser, married to a man who doesn’t approve of culture and wants her to get on with her main purpose in life, giving him a baby.

But Rita wants a life where people discuss ‘real things like Chekhov, not just perms, pies and football. She believes the course will lead her to freedom, another world far removed from the stifling one she is trapped in now.

Frank warns her that to be successful in the exams, she has to follow the academic line irrespective of her idealistic approach to literature. Far from giving her the freedom she seeks, will take away her individuality, which so excites him, and merely place her in another rut...

Leanne Best is outstanding as the Scouse-speaking Rita, lighting up the stage with her exuberance while Con O’Neill is a perfect foil in the role taken by Michael Caine in the film version, cynicism driving him further into the bottle as Rita is catapulted into a different class.

The dialogue is consistently funny although the story has a deep poignancy in respect of the class divisions in society.

One feels there is a lot of Willy Russell in Rita. The uneducated boy surrounded by hostile kids at school, all destined for manual labour while he wanted to be a writer.

Perhaps more depressingly, ‘Educating Rita’ is as relevant today as when written, as it makes one realise that the gulf between the poor working class and the affluent, educated middle classes is as great as ever.

One of the best English plays of the 20th Century this is a brilliant production by Gemma Bodinetz. Truly a performance you must not miss.

Ron Ellis