In Frank’s vast oval cave filled with books and booze, Scouse Rita lets the air in. But you know, something’s changed about our Rita, she knows what she wants more than before. She’s more in control.
This is the new revised version of Willy Russell‘s Educating Rita at Liverpool’s Playhouse. It’s the 35th anniversary of the play and there are changes – a few more killer quips here and there, a strong sense of their friendship, more of a sense of the age gap, and more of a feeling of the stages Rita and Frank go through together. As their experiences nourish their transformation, it feels like a modern metamorphosis. There are more literary trimmings in this revision, hints of parallels to tragedies and to the themes in Howards End – this is perhaps as Susan would see it. As Rita might say, “it’s had its roots done”.
Right now is a good time for a celebration of this character-led play. When popular thought is that plays should move swiftly on and not meander, it’s reassuring to see a well-known work that allows us to sit with characters for a while, if that’s what we enjoy.
The performances are outstanding. Upstanding in fact for last night’s audience. There are a good few lump-in-the-throat moments. When Leanne Best as Rita first walks in the room and sees the lawn from the window – capturing perfectly that moment when Rita gazes at a life she yearns for – it was heartbreaking, subtle and weighty.
Con O’Neill brings more pathos than I’ve seen before to Frank. His tone is that of a kid in a library who is sick of being told to shush. He plays it like he’s heard it all before but, with Rita, there is finally something and someone worth listening to. The harmony of these two actors is their huge difference in tone. The delicate musicality of Best’s voice combines with spot-on timing, and the aria of all she wants to be mirrors O’Neill’s stomping intonation while keeping the meter of disparaging slurs and fierce adoration. This is a harmonious piece.
Something I’d never picked up on before, and is striking in this production, is the idea of choice. The idea that education gives you the confidence to make considered decisions. Rita isn’t changed unrecognisably, she doesn’t swap one class for the other, she just has more options. More options with her sense of humour and cracking Scouse voice. Loved it.
By Cathy Crabb
Photos: Stephen Vaughan
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
When: until March 7, 2015