Educating Rita, or, as it should henceforth be known, the play of the thousand cardigans, brings its towering bookshelves to the Oxford Playhouse this week.
Twinkly-eyed Matthew Kelly plays Frank, a disillusioned literature professor who can only get through the day with the company of the whiskey that he stashes behind his copies of Dickens and Blake. Even more twinkly-eyed is Claire Sweeney as Rita, the feisty Liverpudlian hairdresser who longs to escape her old life and her old self through education. She ends up with Frank as her Open University tutor, and they each have a profound effect on the other.
Rita is kicking against the inevitability of her life. She wants to know. To know what? Everything. Frank feels that he does know everything, but Rita’s hunger and vitality remind him of the joy of sharing this knowledge. This joy does not last long however, as the power balance in their relationship begins to shift, and Rita ascends as Frank’s authority begins to wane.
Matthew Kelly is good as Frank, but that Stars in Their Eyes twinkliness does mean that his despair never feels particularly intense, despite his character’s rampant alcoholism. Claire Sweeney, though now probably better known as a TV personality than an actor, was excellent as Rita. She was instantly likeable, and her blossoming is thoroughly convincing.
The story, set solely in Frank’s office, takes place over the course of a year. The only signifiers of the passage of time are the silhouette of a tree outside the study window, and the aforementioned parade of knitwear cunningly stashed around the set. It is a simple story, simply told – there was no feeling of being shut out, as Rita felt before she started her studies. The gentle humour hit the mark with the audience, and though I felt the set up/punch line jokes were fairly standard and a little old fashioned on occasion, I was very much in the minority.
It doesn’t seem like a great compliment to describe a play as ‘nice’, but that was the overriding feeling I experienced on leaving the theatre. Educating Rita is very endearing and sweet. It leaves you with a very warm feeling. Much like a cardigan.
Debbie Sims (DI Reviewer), 10/07/12
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