REVIEW: EDUCATING RITA (Hordern Ciani for Swanage Rep Season 2021)

With four successful seasons behind them, thwarted only by the dreaded pandemic which annihilated virtually all regional theatre last year, Hordern Ciani are back in full swing at the newly renovated and Covid secure Mowlem Theatre for their fifth season of repertory theatre.

This week they present their take on the Willy Russell classic “Educating Rita” made internationally famous by the award-winning 1983 screenplay starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters in the breakthrough titular role; fans of the screenplay may not realise that the film was an adaption of the original 1980 two-hander play- presented here in Swanage.

The play is essentially a 1980’s Pygmalion; centering as it does on the see-sawing relationship between the world-weary, scruffy drunk University Professor Frank, and his disruptive, fiery and uneducated student, Rita, a 26-year-old hairdresser on a mission to “better herself”. Through the course of the play, teacher becomes student and vice versa and we are left with a bittersweet imagining of how their connection may play out in the future. Will Frank leave the country, or might the characters’ meeting of minds ensure that perhaps their future lies together in some way?

The problem with presenting a piece of populist drama so associated with the famous Oscar-nominated actors who committed the roles to film, is that it is very hard to disassociate the roles with said actors. I am delighted to report that the performers here made the roles their own and within minutes I was viewing with fresh eyes and watching the characters and their journey anew.

A Swanage Rep veteran, this being his third season at the Mowlem, Keith Hill as Frank showed his versatility as an actor, bringing his own characterisation and nuances to the role of the “geriatric hippie”. I was particularly impressed with his “drunk acting” in Act 2-a hard trick to master- and his Frank elicited at turns disgust, pity and poignancy.

Kimberly Hart Simpson is a revelation as Rita; best known for playing the role of Nicky Wheatley in Coronation Street, by her own account she has not performed on stage for several years. Yet she had the audience engrossed in Rita’s unwitting comedy, chipper strength, and at times sadness and vulnerability. The “liability”, with her colourful clothing and language, was perfect casting.

The ergonomic set design by Gem Randall is absolutely stunning and more than fit for purpose as it transports us to the “lovely mess” of Frank’s stuffy book-filled office. Meanwhile, the direction by Alice Bartlett and sound design by Teresa Barlow are genius at reminding us of the era in which the play is set; there are 80’s references throughout, both musically, visually and with the very clever device of playing actual radio reports of the time as bullet points between scenes. Thus we are transported back to the 1980s with actual news reports on Arthur Scargill, The miner’s strike, the IRA, Regan, The Falklands and the never forgotten voice of Maggie Thatcher herself.

Being critical, there were a couple of minor timing issues with technical cues, and I did question the blue light vape used instead of a cigarette for Rita, given the attention to contemporary detail elsewhere- however these small niggles did nothing to dampen my enjoyment of the piece.

Following 18 months of theatre closures and all forms of public performance forcibly grinding to a halt, it is vitally important to support regional theatre as companies such as this work so hard in the face of fear and hardship to bring art back to the provinces.

Educating Rita runs at the Mowlem Theatre, Swanage until 11th September, with a matinee on Saturday 11th. Fans of Willy Russell and Coronation Street alike should flock to the theatre-if only to support a brilliant cast and company working hard to bring this classic piece of theatre to life.

★★★★

Tickets are available in person at the box office or via https://www.ticketsourse.co.uk/the-mowlem-theatre/e-kvmryr

Reviewed by Nicole Faraday