Review: Educating Rita at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Jane Hardy
03 February, 2016 22:01

IS Educating Rita, Willy Russell's Scouse Pygmalion, a comedy or a tragedy?

Good question as Frank, the rumpled OU lecturer might say to his protegee, Rita, now a broad Belfast hairdresser (although never identifiably West or East) at the start of her journey.

Oisin Kearney, the assistant director who has translated this paean of praise to the liberating power of higher education to Northern Ireland, says it was a challenge.

Naturally, but the local references went down well on an electric press night.

And the news inserts and helicopter tape added a desperation to Rita's need to escape.

But it's the claustrophobia of her life with Danny and the OAPs wanting transformation via a perm that really hit home.

Kerri Quinn as Rita, who becomes Susan and ditches the high heels for chat about William Blake, was a revelation.

Funny and sad in a turn of phrase, she inhabited the role.

While it's a comedy for her, as she reaches towards an educated, privileged life with choices, it's a tragedy for old Frank, played decently although a tad nervously at the start by Michael James Ford.

She changes, Frank remains the same, underlining his academic point about Macbeth.

He ends up drunk and bitter - and the opener in which he locates his bottles of spirits behind his library of badly shelved books is comic gold.

Frank's a Lucky Jim en route to being a has-been, and knows it, while Susan has her future all in front of her.

As she says, she's learnt the language, although maybe she has lost something too. The trouble is, that something was keeping her back.   

Maybe the Open University haven't used the play as publicity material as there is hidden in the funny stuff about gay old Forster a critique of the university Eng Lit production line.

Our heroine comments early on "Howard's End, it's sh**te", before connecting, but just maybe Rita's authentic reaction to his comments on the poor are valid.

The play may be a bit dated now, but the finale where Susan challenges her tutor, the good teacher who gave her "everything", was worthy of Shaw. In a way, his ghost hovers over the whole play.

Any concerns that this might be Maggie Muff goes to uni were totally squashed in the touching, tragic (in a modern sense) final scene.

The unsentimentally educated student almost shouts "You can't bear it that I'm educated now." and we see Frank's dreams falling as well as hers being fulfilled.

03 February, 2016 22:01 Stage