Educating Rita by Willie Russell

When and where: July 5 to 15, 2023 at Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town
Performers: Jason Ralph and Zoë McLaughlin
Director: Paul Griffiths
Booking link:
Producer: Tally Ho! Productions

Willy Russell’s was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to write his comedic play, Educating Rita. It was first staged in 1980 and was adapted for the screen (1983) and as with the play, the film received acclaim and won awards. The film starred Michael Caine as Professor Frank Bryant who is tasked with tutoring Rita, a young hairdresser, seeking a formal education, via an Open University literature course in the UK. Rita was played by Julie Walters. It was her break-out role. She was 33 when she played the part in the film but I read that Russell originally positioned Rita as 26. Waters apparently started off playing Rita on stage, when she was 26. Fast-forward to 2023 and we have a new stage adaption of Educating Rita at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, starring award winning Jason Ralph and Fleur du Cap Theatre Award nominated Zoë McLaughlin. In this production, produced by Tally Ho Productions! directed by Paul Griffiths, Rita is portrayed as 29.

I enjoyed this production immensely.  Russell’s writing is terrific and he imbues this play with tremendous pathos, poignancy and humour. At the heart, it is about the power of education and learning to transcend one’s circumstances. In writing the play, Russell was inspired by his own life. He left school, age 15 to become a hairdresser and later on returned to complete his formal education [] The play foregrounds the role of teachers and how essential they are as mentors and Russell was writing from his own experiences and a lovely tenderness comes across in this play. Rita praises Frank on numerous occasions for a being a good teacher. The play engages with how as humans we learn from each other and we teach other. This is beautifully conveyed as we see the growth and transformation of Rita who feels that she is uneducated because she is from a “class” which has denied her access to “culture”.  Russell deftly dissects through those constructs – because of course – it is our humanity which is core – not our pedagogy.

Jason Ralph and Zoë McLaughlin riff off each other’s energy and one gets a sense of the yearning of their characters –both wanting more in life. Their desires are skirted around in the confines of Frank’s office. McLaughlin nails the Liverpudlian accent of Rita which made her such a memorable spunky ball of energy in the film.

Educating Rita is very much relevant, now. However, watching this play and there is not so much it being “dated” but that it comes across for me as something of an anachronism in this day and age of #MeToo. Nowadays, one would unlikely to see a student and a professor, cloistered in a university office, with the door closed. It wouldn’t be okay for a professor to gift his student a slinky dress and for her to gift him an engraved pen. Yes, I understand that this is a period play, set in the 80s and that there is an element of nostalgia and wistfulness as we look back to those times and smile at the references but I feel that this production could have been framed more carefully within the 80s milieu– perhaps with the use of archival material beamed onto the stage.

The set – Frank’s office- heightens the fact that they are in a bubble- isolated from the outside world but I wonder what it would do to flip the room around on its axis, rotate it, so that it is not static. Frank and Rita change significantly as the narrative unfurls and that is enchanting to watch but the room is the room. There are numerous entrances and exits, particularly by Rita with her spunky costume changes but it remains a confined space that we are looking into.

I feel that the production needs pruning and cutting in the first half. I found it difficult to hear all the dialogue. Director Paul Griffiths told me at interval that there was a faulty microphone so hopefully that will be sorted. It is a treat watch the fabulous Jason Ralph and Zoë McLaughlin, in this impeccably crafted play. I loved the Shakespeare scene (yes this play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company). The play is a homage to learning, teaching and mentorship; the joy of sharing insights into art, poetry, theatre books and the joy of an unlikely friendship.  

✳ Featured image: A Gorman Photography.