Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"Educating Rita" - March 2009

When we listed our plans for Spring shows we were unsure about the Citizens' "Educating Rita". Willy Russell’s play about a young woman trying to gain an education from her disenchanted tutor didn’t hugely appeal but we said we would decide once we had cast info. Well, the reason we saw it last night was entirely due to the casting – but perhaps not in quite the way the Citizens anticipated…

One of the things that drove us away from the touring productions at Glasgow's Kings and Theatre Royal was the use of celebrity casts – and soap stars in particular. So when the Citz announced Charles Lawson for the role made famous by Michael Caine and promoted it as starring “Jim McDonald” from Corrie and Emma Cunniffe (from BBC’s The Lakes) I must admit that my heart sank. But a little research revealed that Lawson and Cunniffe both have considerable and impressive stage credentials so we felt obliged to give the Citz the chance to prove that this wasn’t a move towards “stunt casting”.

Fortunately Lawson and Cunniffe are quick to demonstrate that they are more than up to performing the demanding roles that see them sharing the stage for almost the entirety of its two hour run time (plus 15 minute interval). While Lawson is comfortable with the moments of Frank as comic drunk, they are actually fairly restrained and for the most part he makes Frank’s passion, enthusiasm and later his disillusionment the main focus of the character. Cunniffe effectively characterises Rita’s development and makes her believable throughout while retaining the charm of the character.

It would be fairly easy to dismiss Russell’s play as being 'of its time' and having little to say for itself, and to be honest immediately after the show I was left feeling rather underwhelmed by it. But actually, many of its themes kept coming back to me today, sharp reminders that several aspects still have a considerable bite. The questions of 'teaching to exams' and rote learning of facts are more significant than ever – in both our schools and further education establishments; and Rita’s discussion of the impact of her peer group in restraining her opportunities for learning first time round should act as a stinging warning for a generation who (we are told) recoil from intellectualism. Of course the show also has a particular resonance for our little blog here and our ongoing aim of ensuring that we give our own (considered) opinions on shows rather than be influenced by the reputation of a writer/play/actor or what others are saying. Few things set the theatrical blogosphere alight as much as the debate on the value of individual opinion vs ‘objective’ intellectual criticism, and what is 'Educating Rita' about if not that?

However the one element that seems out of place is the portrayal of Frank's alcoholism. While Lawson effectively brings out the character’s frustrations and the inevitable comic elements, there is a lack of appreciation of the damage that’s being caused to others. In the almost thirty years since it was written I think we have moved towards a culture where Frank’s drinking (discreet or otherwise) is less likely to be tolerated and it’s difficult to believe that Frank's students would be hesitant in having action taken against him if they felt they were not receiving 'value for money'.

Jeremy Raison’s direction works well during scenes, but the first act is seriously overlong and overly punctuated by breaks between scenes and I spent the final few short scenes of the first 'half' expecting each one to be the last. It’s a big ask for an audience – especially one with a number of school outings present (although infuriatingly many of them seemed to have come well prepared – share sized Doritos, family packs of Jelly Tots etc etc etc.) We also somehow seem to have acquired an awful habit of applauding at the end of each scene – which only adds to the sense that the action has come to a grinding halt (again). But Philip Witcomb's set is remarkable – I can’t remember a more striking one on the Citz main stage. The mahogany bookshelves and Gothic window are brilliantly atmospheric and the piles of books visible behind the shelves and below the stage are delightful flourishes.

Perhaps this isn’t a production that is going to indelibly etch itself in my memory, and perhaps it takes a bit of thought to identify its continuing relevance, but there is no doubting the quality. In future we’ll certainly give the Citz the benefit of the doubt regarding the use of well known faces – provided they continue to have the stage presence to back it up.

Educating Rita runs at the Citizens until Saturday 7th March
Image by Eamonn McGoldrick used with permission