Review: Clwyd Theatr Cymru – Educating Rita @ Sherman Cymru
‘‘The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you’’ – B. B. King
Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is a beacon for education.
Here it has been Welshified (I’m trying to get this word into the dictionary) to make it appeal for a local audience. Being very much a Liverpudlian piece of theatre, this isn’t its first venture to a setting in Wales. In fact the last time I saw this play was at the Sherman as well, with Ruth Jones as Rita. This was just before her catapult into fame with Gavin & Stacey and after her appearances in Little Britain. That production was very much set in Cardiff with numerous photos of the city displayed during the vast quantity of scene changes. The setting of the play does not matter. You can modernise it with mobiles, headphones and mentioning DVDs. Or you could set it in Timbuktu and it would still be as honest and relevant as the original conception.
Rita, a hairdresser, has applied for an Open University course in English Literature. With her tutor Frank, they develop a curious relationship as she tries to better herself, as well as realising he is also flawed with alcoholism and a troubled relationship with his partner. Rita’s husband is no better. He can’t understand why she now wants to learn at the age of 26 (you are never too old to learn). Can Rita cope with the pressure of a course? Is Frank the right person to be teaching her? Will they perhaps form their own relationship?
Plus, well-read fans of literature are bound to find this play immensely humorous. Many jokes about writers and their books are thrown into the dialogue between Rita and Frank. In one scene she remarks that E. M. Forster’s Howards End sounds ‘dirty’ or Frank describing assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences (e.g. swan and stone) as ‘getting the rhyme wrong’. A brilliant quote and one of the best in the show. It turns out that Frank actually got this wrong and was referring to consonance, but I digressâ€¦
What makes this play worthy of its stature after thirty years is the chemistry between the two characters. This is by far one of the best depictions of a teacher-pupil relationship put on stage. This is a modern sort of Pygmalion, a well to do man with a project in making a lower class women improve herself. The modern American version of this could be seen as Pretty Woman, dare I say. Frank doesn’t want her to go away, he’s taught her all he knows and can’t bare the thought of her going off without him. She transforms into a new woman. Empowered and knowledgeable, she feels she can take on the world. But at what price?
There is much truth in her views of her own kind. How she was brought up. The mentality of the working class. It spoke volumes when she said, "I can’t even speak their language," (which could be seen as a remark about the Welsh language, but that’s up for discussion). Her insecurity over not joining Frank at his house for a dinner party is like something my mother could easily do. Everyone was pulling Rita down, which was why she had to do the course. She wanted more out of life than just pubs, bingo and the job centre (don’t we all). It still rings very true in today’s society. Another great quote is when she describes her family singing in a pub. She notices her mother crying and tells her, "There are better songs to sing than thisâ€¦" I’ll let you think that one over.
Even though I knew the text quite well, I was still laughing out loud. There is so much humour to be had in this play. I greatly recommend the film version as well. Julie Walters and Michael Caine were Oscar nominated such are their performances, with Russell also nominated for his script.
As for our duo here, Richard Elfyn and Katie Elin-Salt were stellar in their roles. I would say the latter really became her role, as it doesn’t seem too hard of a stretch. Her Welsh accent felt very genuine. It’s probably her real voice, if I’m not mistaken. Her gesticulation was sound in the way she would express herself whilst angry or in a state. With lightening speed she would put her hand on her thigh, then flail it in the air, then rub her head and do it again and again in a matter of moments. Her frustration felt very real and once again honest.
The set also felt very genuine. When going into lecturers' offices there are always books scattered everywhere. On the floor, on the seats, even as a doorstop. Frank would stash away booze in the books and praise the writer in which he found it next to. Even the storage boxes used are the same ones we have at home. All I could think about was just how delicate they are when weight is put into them. Or the size of the window that was almost like the length of stain glass window in a church. Even the famous British emblem is marked into the top of the set to watch over are two players in its firm majesty.
Perhaps a new film version is in order?