Staging productions of plays that have already been made into widely acclaimed, arguably better, films always seems like a daring gambit, and perhaps for this reason alone, the Citizens’ new production of Educating Rita deserves some credit, even if Emma Cunniffe and Charles Lawson do not quite fill the shoes so memorably worn by Julie Walthers and Michael Caine in the 1983 cinematic version, adapted by playwright Willy Russell himself. The problem with any new version is that it will already have had pointed out to it — and not just in the usual way, by critics, but by the author of the text, no less — areas in which it can be improved: add a couple more locations, some secondary characters, and cast Walthers and Caine.
Even if they do not exactly have the staying power of their predecessors, Lawson and Cunniffe both give solid performances as Frank and Rita, the professor and Open University student who, over a series of tutorial sessions, consistently provide for one another the kind of revelatory insights into life that one only ever comes across in the theatre.
Lawson’s is a great role to play with: the jaded, curmudgeonly alcoholic who has only taken on the work to pay his bar tab, and he emphasises his character’s intellectual arrogance, delivering lines like “she admires me enormously” with obvious relish (although perhaps missing the point in doing so). Just the wrong side of lovable rogue, he pitches Frank about right, and I couldn’t help but enjoy a little schadenfreude as his position is gradually usurped by Rita’s newfound social circle.
Cunniffe’s performance is a more complex — although maybe less enjoyable — one, and she creates an air of perpetual chaos with ease. Her initial meeting with Frank — the most important scene in the play in terms of establishing their power dynamic — is admirably handled, and Cunniffe succeeds in seducing Frank into underestimating her. Even though Rita’s lack of experience occasionally comes across as a slightly unconvincing faux-naïve schtick, her insecurities in the company of Frank have real emotional depth, never more so than in his unpleasantly patronising desire to parade her to his friends.
Still, although the relationship between the two evolves in a delicate and engrossing manner, the story on which it is structured feels flawed. The redemption both characters are forced into offering one another feels slightly clichéd — rendered trite by decades of overuse as a unifying device, perhaps — and the constant, abrupt changes of scene — each one heralded in by Rita bursting into Frank’s office and closed with pithy summary — as a means of developing the story gives the play the feel of being made up of a series of montage-ish, episodic vignettes, rather than a single coalescing story.
Even though the message of female empowerment has a very 80s feel to its delivery, and Russell using Rita as mouthpiece for a rather confusing set of ideologies, from bourgeois cultural values to anti-consumerist ones, feels contrived, Educating Rita is still a wholly likeable story, and under Jeremy Raison’s able direction, this production acquits itself endearingly well.