There can’t have been many in Tuesday night’s audience who hadn’t seen Julie Walters and Michael Caine on-screen as Rita and Frank. Set in Thatcher’s Britain the 1983 film adaptation of Educating Rita went on to achieve multi-awards success, providing career defining roles for both actors.
The Hull Truck summer production of Educating Rita directed by Mark Babych (Hull Truck Artistic Director) is the full length two-hander, set entirely within Frank’s office with Taj Atwal (In The Club, Miranda, Moving On) and Simon Armstrong (Game of Thrones, Made in Dagenham) bringing something new to the much-loved characters of Frank, the middle-class apathetic Open University lecturer, and Rita, unmistakably working-class, wide-eyed with aspiration, desperate to learn.
The show has been very subtly updated, there’s the mention of phones and a laptop gets unceremoniously dumped, in the waste-paper basket at the start of Act 2, to be replaced by a typewriter: perhaps, indicative of Frank’s resistance to change, or maybe just a visual gag for the audience to enjoy. A well-attended Press night saw the addition of live music in the foyer – before the start and during the interval – with a duo playing hits from the Heaton & Rotheray songbook to the great and the good. The set included acoustic versions of Driftwood by Travis, Shed Seven’s ‘Chasing Rainbows’ and the like: obvious choices.
The audience is immediately confronted by an imposing wall of books, that form the majority of the set designed by James Turner, suggestive of the crushing, constricting social mores and values of academia. There’s a sticking door that Rita has to really push on, before getting her foot inside the stuffy office: Frank doesn’t rush to open it for her. There’s a telling line about culture that resonates in the auditorium, the values and hierarchy assigned to low and hi-brow art, as we await 2017’s solution to squaring that particular circle.
It took me a little while to warm to the two, perhaps Armstrong’s Frank stirred some sense of loss within my own academic path, maybe Rita’s desire to breathe more rarefied air, was a little too close for comfort, but each won me over particularly Taj Atwal. I thrilled for her as she burst into Franks office, after experiencing real theatre for the first time, “It’s brilliant!” she cries, her passions clearly ignited.
Educating Rita seeks to challenge the idea that academic achievement, is the sole preserve of the privileged and the wealthy, it asks questions about social mobility and whether one could, or even should, try to escape the class they were born into. Rita looks at those around her and desires something more, something she sees as being more valuable, she does not want to end up like her mum in the pub crying, in years to come.
We cheer her on as she learns how to compare the poets, write objectively about literature, a far cry from her first essay response of ‘Put it on the radio’ . We laugh as she changes her voice and imitates the trappings of middle-class acceptability; reads the right books; wears the right clothes; buys the right wine. But as she undergoes the Pygmalion-like transformation, Frank retreats more and more inside the various bottles, he has secluded in his study.
Frank’s allusion to Frankenstein’s Monster perfectly underscores his conflicting feelings of loss and pride at what Rita has become. In one pivotal scene, Frank tells Rita she can pass the exams, that she is good enough. Her raw passion for learning has, over the intervening years, become perfectly acceptable, considered intellectual critique. She can read and write about poetry and literature, she can quote all the right authorities, but what has she lost of herself in doing so?
The play asks questions about the value of education that are as relevant as ever they were. The box-ticking, exam-driven, numbers game of today’s education system, resonates in the room as Frank, describes the ‘accepted’ way of answering examination questions to Rita. Today’s student, has no need for a tutor to tell them the whys and the wherefores, on how to answer the questions, the answers are all there in plain sight on that great leveller known as the web.
Educating Rita works on many levels, not least echoing something of my own decision to improve my chances by returning to education and the slow realisation that it may not be the doorway to bigger and better things, I thought it would be. ‘It’s not what you know but who you know,’ a well-used line and one that could be brought to bear in this culture clash comedy – could also be viewed as a tragedy Frank is directly responsible for his own downfall – will it be the learning that takes Rita where she wants to be or the new society she is keeping? Just one question among many which is left open to interpretation.
There is no earth-shattering conclusion, no big final show down, the heavy symbolism in the final scene not withstanding, where Rita brandishes her scissors to finally cut Frank’s hair. What you do get are the rewards of self-knowledge, the audience are left knowing that Rita has the opportunity to determine her own future and of Frank…? Sure, he has the promise of Australia, but will he go? I’m not so sure he will.
Educating Rita by Willy Russell runs until July 9 at Hull Truck #EducatingRita