EDUCATING Rita burst on to the national consciousness nearly 40 years ago in a film which made a star of Julie Walters – but Willy Russell’s play was first staged three years previously, and it is as a play that it really works its magic, as it does once again in this production by Sherborne’s Amateur Players at their studio theatre in the old Marston Road chapel.
It is a two-hander – feisty hair-dresser Rita, at 29 discovering she knows nothing and now she wants to know EVERYTHING, and whisky-drinking university tutor Frank, who knows he is not the next great poet but resents the financial need to have to take on Open University work on top of his university teaching.
The play is a study of a young woman discovering herself – rather than Chekhov or Shakespeare or Forster –and her relationship with a disappointed man whose jaded formula of setting essays for bored students is shaken to its roots by her energy and fizzingly inquiring mind.
Willy Russell’s Rita is one of theatre’s great creations, certainly one of the most challenging and rewarding for any actress. Talented Sarah Nias grabs it and runs with it, just as Rita grabs and runs with her discovery of other lives and other realities – the excitement of Macbeth, the snobbishness of EM Forster, the “why is it funny” drama of Chekhov.
Nias, who has already impressed audiences at Sherborne and Yeovil’s Swan Theatre, brings energy, boundless charm and a brilliant Liverpool accent to the role. She is mercurial, quick-witted, passionate, instinctive. All the things that Rita is and that Frank sees almost from the moment the improbable new student walks into his messy office, with its bottles of whisky hidden behind books.
She is well matched by Martin Williams, with a wig that looks like Badly Thatched Boy might look if he was (a) grey and (b) ever brushed his hair.
Williams finds real humanity in Frank, a growing sense of the futility of his life, but a surprise at his ability to feel something, not only for the endlessly appealing Rita but also for the books, the poets, the writers from whom he has made his living, but who have become as boring for him as the ordinary students.
Their on-stage relationship has real chemistry. Together they bring out the humour, anger, hurt, poignancy, optimism, alienation, excitement and other emotions that Rita hurtles through as she works for her degree, loses her marriage, finds a new job and new friends, discovers something important about her mother and finally learns, not everything, but how to be joyfully, independently, bravely herself.
It’s a terrific production, directed by Graham Smith, and it runs to Saturday 26th March. FC