Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, and David Pugh and Daffyd Rogers Production
Lowry Quays, Salford
30 April 2019 - 3 May 2019; 2hr 15min. Visits Bradford Alhambra, May 6-11
We've been educating Rita since Willy Russell's play was first staged in 1980, and have delighted in watching the feisty Liverpool hairdresser growing in character as she relishes literature on an Open University course while her grumpy tutor Frank's world crumples.
This latest national tour stars Stephen Tompkinson as Frank, whose drinking habits are slowly ruining his career and personal life, while his pupil Rita, (Jessica Johnson), is on the brink of a new life immersed in literature, plays and poetry.
Tompkinson, famous for TV, film and theatre from DCI Banks and The Yorkshire Detective to Drop the Dead Donkey and Brassed Off, is the star of this new tour. He slips easily into the role of the rumpled, crumpled and bitter academic whose life changes when hairdresser Rita breezes into his study and challenges his attitudes to life and learning. Though less well-known, Jessica Johnson as Rita is a whirlwind of talk at 100mph and holds her own in a two-hander that demands two hours on stage for both characters and quick cut-and-thrust of banter and revealing personal insights.
Tompkinson, as Frank, is an academic who gradually comes alive again as Rita's naive enthusiasm for learning challenges his cynical view of students and university management. Rita is working class, wants to move on and feels held back by her background. But as Rita's world expands into summer schools, wider horizons and challenging texts, Frank's declines as his fondness for alcohol and failing personal relationships leave him lonely, finally packing up his books and moving on.
Both actors are good foils for each other, and Johnson's Rita is a sassy character with a little more edge than usual: quicker, snappier and very believable.
Tompkinson makes Frank's decline a sad story to watch, the man being his own worst enemy - just as Johnson's Rita makes mistakes taking on new friends and repeating other people's opinions, forgetting to think for herself. Their on-stage sparring is clever, witty, well-timed and sharp.
A great set, book-lined, hints at the 1979 era in which the play is set with its typewriter (no computers then), BT telephone and mismatched desk and chairs.
If you don't catch this run, the national tour moves to Bradford next and it is well worth the journey.