Educating Rita: Heartwarming return to live theatre at The Rose

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.

Going to the theatre was going to be an odd experience when the country was still in partial lockdown.

But Educating Rita, the comeback show for the Rose Theatre in Kingston, was not only as safe as it could be, given the pandemic, but thoroughly enjoyable.

The team at The Rose were keen to follow the latest Government guidelines; upon entry, audience members had their temperatures taken and social distancing in the auditorium was fully enforced.

Audience members chatted excitedly before the show about being back at the theatre, and there was a sense of normality in the air to be doing something other than shopping.

The production team cleverly transported the audience to the 80s, when the play is set, by playing songs from the era in the auditorium as the audience were seated. The set was visible with props hinting at the period such as a typewriter, rotary dial telephone, and wicker wastepaper bins.

Stars of the show Stephen Tompkinson (Frank) and Jessica Johnson (Rita) were able to seamlessly bring the audience into their world, despite the play being set in just one location – Frank’s office.

The set was incredibly busy with lots of props, however, almost all props were used in one way or another meaning that the sense of crowding was quickly overlooked.

Educating Rita by Willy Russell will show at the Rose Theatre Photo: Nobby Clark

Johnson portrayed Rita as a very energetic and eager young woman, who was intent on her journey of self-discovery. This contrasted well with Tompkinson’s portrayal of a miserable, pessimistic and hopeless Frank.

Johnson and Tompkinson’s romantic relationship provided them with an advantage of furthering the connection between Rita and Frank, though it is highly likely that even without this relationship, the talent of the actors would shine through.

At one point in the play, Rita came bursting into Frank’s office and it was difficult to tell whether she was happy or sad, for both the audience and Frank. She excitedly told Frank that she had been to the theatre, a professional theatre, to see Macbeth.

Despite not verbalising it, Tompkinson allowed the audience to see Frank’s joy for Rita which was one of the key moments that the audience were able to recognise his character as a likeable one.

In the previous scene, Rita had told Frank that she had never been to a professional theatre, and so the audience were left just as excited by her revelation to Frank as she was to tell him.

Equally, this was a pivotal scene for Frank, who, excited by Rita’s excitement, begins to passionately discuss Macbeth.

The audience were left feeling proud of Frank, and responded with a big clap after the scene finished.

Johnson was particularly good at displaying emotion throughout the performance and making the audience like Rita. The audience laughed alongside her at Frank, and felt the same fondness for him as Rita did. Equally, when he was drinking and being stubborn, the audience often found themselves on her side.

The lighting and sound cues were carried out with precision and allowed for Tompkinson to remain on stage between scenes which indicated time passing of at least a week.

When Rita left her husband, Denny, and her home, the audience were left with a bittersweet feeling. They were glad that she chose education and her journey of self-discovery over her oppressive husband, however, it was still difficult to see Rita, someone who had quickly become like a friend to the audience, upset.

The actors further showed their ease of emotional range when it was revealed that Rita did not tell Frank about her new job.

The atmosphere between the two changes as Rita shrugged him off and brought up Tyson, a student at the university, as if there was a literal wall between them, and the audience was not oblivious to it.

Despite this, the pair remained incredibly likeable characters, and the connection between the two did not go unnoticed.

With more tender, and endearing scenes that follow this, as the pair make up, the audience were left very much on their side.

The play as a whole, leaves you feeling like you have just had a much needed warm hug, and was made even better by the production expertise of David Pugh.

Overall, it is a play definitely worth seeing, and an excellent choice for reopening the theatre. The audience clearly agreed as they applauded at the end of the show with a standing ovation.

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