Self-improvement largely takes on two methodologies. Some look in the mirror and are disappointed with what stares back. Others see the potential in loved ones (or occasionally Covent Garden guttersnipes) to—after a vigorous makeover guided by their vision or expertise—transform the base material into a gleaming gem then bask in the reflected glory while using the newborn creation for their own continuing gain (financial, societal or sexual).
In the 21st century, extreme makeovers have become fodder for reality television as unwanted pounds are shed, tacky wardrobes revamped or dilapidated dwellings redone from top to bottom.
After the eighth decade of the preceding century—with its particular angst about the meaning of life fostered during the anything-goes, Beatlemania ‘60s—Willy Russell took his creative pen to paper and crafted a state-of-the-angst two-hander script where an unrepentant alcoholic professor takes on an Open University student to pay for his literal library-bar scotch and teach the thirtysomething hairdresser the meanings of literary tragedy and criticism.
If this scenario appears to be a knockoff of Shaw’s Pygmalion of 1916 (and The Shaw’s My Fair Lady—cross-reference below) best think again. Henry Higgins’ Eliza Doolittle was selected by chance and became part of a “gentlemen’s” bet. Frank Bryant’s Rita most emphatically chose her transformer, wanting to “understand everything” (including “fucking rubbish poetry”). Despite the completely different setups, the resultant “products” are curiously similar.
Opening the Lucky-7 season of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, this production of Educating Rita succinctly demonstrates why the next seven years are so eagerly anticipated.
In the title role, Jenny L. Wright brings exuberance, energy and complete understanding of her transition from an at-the-crossroads (“Is this it ...?”), on-the-pill bride who wants more from life than just making babies and singing in the pub on Saturday nights. Once the first scene is over (Russell at his wordiest, fills in the back-story but leaves the pair with far too much stand-and-deliver declamations which, happily, don’t make their way back into the mix), Wright soars through the script, gamely turning the world of academic snobbery and artistic pretension on its ear. With masterpieces such as E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (“he doesn’t care about the poor”), Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (marvellously honest “Do it on the radio” becomes a one-sentence essay that, nonetheless, ought to still get an A) and Shakespeare’s Macbeth working their way in and out of the scenes, Russell comes into his own whether pillorying literary critics or the notion that the best poetry is not meant to be widely understood.
Ric Reid brings his many talents to the fore playing the cynical souse with a taste for dating his students with customary skill and insight. Over nearly two hours, it’s a challenge for anyone to be relatively inebriated without falling into the trap of a single-hue delivery. Reid saves up for the second act’s staggering aftermath of a lecture where “I went down talking,” which became the last straw for management: not being sacked (ah, tenure …) but sent down to Australia and a different sort of penal servitude. In the early going, Reid gives his alluring charge a look of warm yearning that is masterfully built into near-obsession even as he comes to understand there’s little left to teach the quick-learn, now voracious lover of art—even his poems! Just prior, Wright provides an unforgettable few moments of spot-on dialect. Her parody of upper-class pronouncements (as empty as a political promise) is a hilarious bit of comedy that perfectly sets the stage for the wide array of emotions that follow, beginning with Reid’s deft depiction of Paradise Lost. (The only caution for the chronic drinker is a far too varied set of booze bottles hidden amongst the tomes of literature. Career imbibers generally have their favourites, much as smokers savour their brand of choice.)
Director Kelly Daniels has given her expert cast just as much rope as they need to put their stamp on the material without losing sight of Russell’s multilayered themes and biting commentaries. Breaking the mythical rule of never have your back to the audience pays off handsomely: we think we know the characters, but at a mere half turn—particularly Rita—they are about to prove again just how far their collective educations have progressed.
So when the too-long payoff to the promise of leaving the realm of “Hippiedom” finally is poised for shear, metaphorical delight, everyone realizes that lessons have been learned on both sides of the proverbial footlights. JWR