Educating Rita review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

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Just before the opening night performance of Ensemble’s new production of Educating Rita, one of my friends overheard an audience member say to their companion about the play: “This is the real deal: it’s British.”

It’s a pretty hilarious statement given that Willy Russell’s 1980 comedy is about a young Liverpudlian hairdresser who goes to open college in an effort to gain a new “culture”, which she believes to be superior to her own working class one. Australian audiences have a long tradition of denigrating their own culture, while rightly or wrongly elevating other work from the Western canon. (John Misto’s Australian play The Shoehorn Sonata is playing in repertory with Educating Rita at Ensemble, and I’d say Misto’s play stands up in 2015 as the more accomplished piece of writing.)

Rita (Catherine McGraffin) is sick to death of her day-to-day working class existence and wants to discover something “greater”, so she enrols in a course in English literature. Her tutor is Frank (Mark Kilmurry), a formerly eminent professor who has been forced to take on the job to pay for his alcoholism.

Frank is initially frustrated at having to pass on his knowledge to this young student, but she’s got a “working class charm” and a way of approaching the classics which opens his eyes to their true human potential, outside the cold literary analysis he’s used to. But the more Rita learns, the more she inevitably changes, and it’s a shift Frank isn’t happy with.

I suppose it is the “real deal” in most senses. It’s been widely loved, studied and performed over the last three decades, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that relevant for a Sydney audience today. Sure, class and culture are still at the very centre of how our society operates and organises itself, but there are better, more immediate texts which tackle these same themes.

Thankfully, Russell’s play has been given a loving, astute production by director Mark Kilmurry (who also stars as Frank) which hits all the right notes and faithfully brings the wit and fun (and constant literary references) of Russell’s words to the stage. There’s a sense of rhythm and comedy, which keeps the two-hander chugging along.

McGraffin has played Rita before, and she’s got the Liverpudlian charm, swagger and vocal patterns down to a tee. It’s certainly a dynamic performance, but often feels a little undercooked — there’s a tragic, desperate subtext to Rita that sometimes goes missing. She plays the role broadly enough to get some big laughs from the audience, but they could be even bigger if played with just a touch more sincerity.

Kilmurry turns in the quieter performance, which is an excellent one considering that he stepped into the role at the last minute before opening. Again, he could do with a little more nuance, but that should develop throughout the season.

It also features one of the best designs I’ve seen at Ensemble from Anna Gardiner, with towering bookshelves and a large frosted window which never overwhelm the space and leave the actors plenty of room to play.

But, for me, the question which keeps hanging over this production is: if you’re wanting to explore the roles which education, class, the “performance” of class and culture play in society, why not do Shaw’s Pygmalion? When Rita premiered, it was very much a Pygmalion for the here and now (it’s a very loose adaptation of Pygmalion). We’re now about as separated from 1980s Liverpool as we are from Edwardian London, and there’s really nothing that Rita does which Pygmalion does not do better.

Or why not commission a new work exploring class here and now? There’s plenty still to be said.

[box]Educating Rita is at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until 28 June[/box]

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