Educating Rita is a play that tells the story of Frank (Henry Roberts), a cynical and disenchanted alcoholic lecturer who has taken on Open University classes to fund his drinking. His first student is Rita (Ellie Burke), a charming, energetic and witty 26 year old Liverpudlian hairdresser who is far from the typical academic. Coming in at two hours, with no interval and only two cast members, keeping the audience’s attention is a significant difficulty, and one the production struggled with.
It is a curse of student theatre that we are all, in fact, students. We don’t have many middle-aged men around to play roles such as Frank and thus actors will play roles they don’t visually resemble. Roberts attempted to embody an older man with a slowed speech pattern and a more world-weary posture. He displayed obvious acting talent for which I would be excited to see him in other roles, but unfortunately it was difficult to suspend disbelief, as many youthful mannerisms littered his performance and, outside of a single sweater vest, no attempts were made to alter his appearance to suit the older character. This meant losing the impact of the character’ lechery and the inappropriateness of some of his actions. Additionally this slowed speech pattern, while perhaps suited to the character, resulted in many scenes dragging on, labouring the pace of an already lengthy play. However, despite visible nerves creating slips and lack of comedic timing early in the show, it has to be said that Roberts improved greatly over the course of the show. He appeared to relax into his role and landed more of the shows humorous moments. Hopefully with first-night jitters out of the way his next performance shall be stronger.
If Roberts’ performance was a slow-burner, Burke’s was anything but. From the moment she bounced on stage her energy and infectious charm never dropped (even if her accent sometimes did). In what was a well-rounded, equally sincere and amusing performance, Burke made you truly care about Rita. One particularly noteworthy element of her portrayal was the effective representation of the journey the character goes through: I could see a distinct difference between the flustered and charmingly unaware Rita of the first scene, with the “educated” and confident Rita of the final scene, losing her charismatic ignorance that Frank had so grown to love. This journey was complimented by an effective use of costume, with Rita starting in a dowdy, simple dress, later substituted for a more professional look in a blouse and black skirt.
The production team effectively decorated the notoriously ugly Barron stage to create Frank’s office, with books laid everywhere and a particularly nice desk that suited the aesthetic. The use of a light from the wings stage-right in place of a window was also a clever addition and I was particularly impressed with a regular house lamp that they’d managed to rig to the tech box so it could be turned on and off during scene changes. This kind of unique use of lighting is something the Barron should see more of.
Unfortunately, for a relatively simple show in terms of tech and props, there were multiple errors. On a couple of occasions lights came up or went down too early creating awkward moments, though this is excusable and can be put down to it being the opening performance. What is not excusable is scene-specific props remaining on stage, outstaying their welcome and breaking the reality of the scene – am I supposed to believe that Rita went to London for the summer but left her suitcase in Frank’s office? This is something that is very easily fixable and should have been considered in the blocking of the scenes or scene changes.
Educating Rita is an ambitious production to stage, especially in a student town. It was also the debut of two first year actors (outside of Burke’s appearance in a Fresher’s Play) and they both showed themselves to have bright Mermaid’s careers ahead of them. Burke in particular put in a nuanced and accomplished performance. She has obviously found a director she works well with, so I look forward to seeing them working together again at the Fringe, in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. If Rita’s aim was to create laughter, then it very much succeeded, however there were too many elements that took me out of the reality of a show, which went on for too long.
Educating Rita was performed as part of On The Rocks
Photo provided by Lightbox.