As Rita bursts into the study of her Open University tutor, you know it's going to be a great performance of this new production of Willy Russell's great British comedy, Educating Rita writes Karen Morley-Chesworth.

Like rediscovering an album you loved from the 80s and placing the needle into the groove of the vinyl and the magical phrases come back to you, returning to Educating Rita is pure pleasure.

It must be hard for two actors to step into these roles which are so synonymous with Julie Walters and Michael Caine who made the film version of this play so successful - however you feel as if the role of Frank was made for Stephen Tompkinson, and all memory of Ms Walters' brilliant portrayal of Rita are forgotten as Jessica Johnson explodes onto the set.

To remember the lines from a production you saw 36 years ago shows the impact of Russell's script. It is so hard to believe the words Rita delivers have been written by a man, they ooze oestrogen. Yet despite knowing what comes next, Tompkinson and Johnson take ownership of this classic tale of a working-class heroine who just wants an education - to give her choices.

Together, Tompkinson and Johnson make it feel like you are watching a new play. Despite a different political era, this play is as relevant and fresh today as when the film was first released in 1983.

Today Open University isn't just for those who missed the university boat in their teens, as student loans make part-time study the only options for many without financial wealth, yet this doesn't age this piece which makes you laugh and cry at the emotional rollercoaster of two people brought together in the name of education, who change each other's lives forever.

Tompkinson captures the despair of the educator, ground down by years of giving to his students' formatted ways of writing about literature to pass exams, rather than focusing on his passion for writing his poetry.

Johnson as the naive 29-year old hairdresser who is transformed into a cultured, educated young woman captures the characteristics of each phase of development brilliantly. Her pace and style work in perfect harmony with Tompkinson. Together they are perfectly cast.

Tompkinson acts the perfect drunk, his movements so accurate, the slight slur in speech pitch and pace perfect. This is an excellent portrayal of Frank, a more natural, less pretentious and more rugged version.

There is real chemistry between these two actors that magnifies the relationship between these two characters, as the balance of power transfers from teacher to student as we progress along the OU course with them.

The production at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick is the first of a tour visiting 11 theatres. I would say get a ticket now, however, in Cumbria, it's a sell-out (only chance is if you get a return ticket), and quite deservedly too. I'd travel to see this production again, it really is that good.

Reviewer: Karen Morley-Chesworth

Reviewed: 22nd April 2019

North West End Rating: ★★★★★


Educating Rita is at Theatre by the Lake until 27th April and is then on tour visiting:

The Lowry, Salford, 30th April – 4th May

Bradford Alhambra Theatre 6th – 11th May

Nottingham Theatre Royal 13th – 18th May

Theatr Clwyd 20th May – 1st June

Theatre Royal Bath 3rd – 8th June

Norwich Theatre Royal 10th – 15th June

Salisbury Playhouse 17th – 22nd June

Exeter Northcott Theatre 24th – 29th June

Eden Court Inverness 2nd – 6th July

Wolverhampton Grand Theatre 8th – 13th July

Theatre Royal, Wakefield 15th – 20th July

Sheffield Lyceum 22nd – 27th July

Cambridge Arts 29th July – 3rd August

Malvern Festival Theatre 5th – 10th August

Darlington 12th – 17th August