TO quote David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers the producers of this play: “This is the best British comedy ever written”.
I think there are several other plays that would be legitimate challengers for that accolade, but there is no doubting that Willy Russell’s story of Rita, a 26-year- old ill-educated Liverpudlian hairdresser seeking to expand her life through an Open University English Literature course, and Frank the oft-inebriated middle- aged lecturer she is assigned to, is a wonderful piece of comedy writing.
Most people know the play through the expanded 1983 film version starring Julie Walters as Rita and Michael Caine as Frank. On stage it is two hander set throughout in Frank’s cluttered university study, expertly designed and dressed by Patrick Connellan, and directed with lovely subtle changes of pace by Max Roberts.
Whilst offering tremendous opportunities, it also poses a tremendous challenge to the two actors involved. They have to show Rita changing from vibrant, eager, at times childlike student greedily grabbing at every morsel of information that comes her way, to pretentious, trendy, more poised young woman who thinks that through her new found knowledge she indeed has all the answers to life’s problems.
Jessica Johnson sails in at the start of the play sweeping the world-weary Frank up and away like a tsunami, flattening everything in its way. She does so in an authentic broad Liverpool accent, often at great speed, which leaves anyone born south of Birmingham having to concentrate like mad not to miss a line or two. The character however never looses its focal point and when she realises that she is now in limbo, educated away from her past friends and family, but still uncomfortable in her new surroundings there is fear, longing and determination in Johnson’s every word and movement. It runs almost parallel with that moment in Pygmalion when Eliza, feeling rejected after the ball, asks what’s to become of her now that they have made a lady of her.
Watching her progress with a critical eye, proud in some ways, but saddened by the loss of spontaneity and honesty his teaching has brought about, is Stephen Tompkinson’s alcoholic Professor Higgins-like Frank. But this is no second hand Rex Harrison. This is a beautiful judged portrayal of a talented man, a poet, driven to drink by self-doubt. He hardly puts a foot wrong as he moves from the frustration of having to teach this wild uneducated girl in order to raise enough money to survive, through self-pity, bombastic showing off which finally seals his teaching fate at the university, to defeated academic sent, like the convicts of old, to Australia to start a new teaching life.
The end, with the educated Rita now providing the strength to face the future that Frank had supplied at the start of the story, is left open ended allowing the more romantic members of the audience to graft on a epilogue that pleases them.