Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s advice to people in the arts may have been to get another job, but here in Kingston, the show must go on.
Educating Rita’s 40th anniversary tour is coming to the Rose Theatre at the end of the month, and stars Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson are looking forward to performing again.
“We’re very excited, we can’t wait to get back on stage again in front of a live audience, it’s going to be wonderful,” said Johnson.
Tompkinson echoed her excitement. “We’re thrilled to be getting back and doing it in a theatre that has four walls and a roof, it’s going to be lovely,” he said.
The play, written by Willy Russell, follows Rita (Johnson), a working-class woman desperate to change her social circumstances, as she pursues an Open University degree. On her journey, she helps to revitalise her failed poet and alcoholic professor Frank’s (Tompkinson) love of teaching.
Johnson, like Rita, was a mature student, and she said she understood how much hard work it is.
As a working-class woman herself, Johnson said she “identified” with Rita as a character, and praised Russell for creating “amazing” working-class women.
“When I can recognise my people, and I can recognise voice, then obviously I feel like I have some common ground there, it’s very easy to feel empathic with the character, I have quite a bit in common with Rita,” she said.
“I recognised my own working class voice in there and I thought ‘they do write plays about working class women, maybe it isn’t all Shakespeare’, and I think that’s the thing, when we do a play, we want our audience to identify, to learn something, and to go on a journey with them [the characters].”
Tompkinson, however, did not see so many similarities between himself and pessimistic Frank.
“I think when we join him at the play, life has really got him down. When Rita walks into his room, he hasn’t done any open university work before, so in many ways they’re both starting from scratch,” he said.
“They become very co-dependent on one another and…the two of them go on a very similar journey. With no interval, that journey becomes even more immediate and shared with the audience, and I think its enhanced it somehow. Taking the minutes out that we have, it’s become a lot slicker.”
Theatre as an escape
The past few months have been miserable and boring, with the arts sector only just starting to get back on its feet. It is estimated, the arts have lost £74 billion over lockdown, and hundreds of thousands of jobs have been cut.
The arts are enjoyed by many. They are a way to enjoy life, by partaking in it directly through mediums such as painting or dancing, or by taking trips to museums and theatres.
“For every actor who’s desperate to perform out there, there are hundreds of people who want to come back to the theatre and have that shared experience and belief in story-telling, and I think we need it now more than ever – we need that escapism,” said Tompkinson.
While all sectors have been heavily impacted by the lockdown in March, which is still partially in effect now, Oxford Economics projected that theatres alone will lose £3bn and will have lost 26 per cent of staff in permanent jobs.
“It’s heartbreaking to see so many theatres closing down, and other theatres having to make such massive cut-backs with their staffing. It’s very hard for everyone and I don’t think we’ve ever put enough emphasis when times are dark of how much you need the escapism of storytelling,” said Tompkinson.
“I would hope they can invest a bit more; people do want to put things on and people do want to go and see them, we can just hope that we’ll be allowed to very soon.”
Willy Russell and performing to an audience
During rehearsals in Scotland, pre-lockdown, the writer Willy Russell made an appearance.
“I think one of the most exciting things for me and Stephen was having Willy Russell in the room. It really was extraordinary. It’s definitely the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Johnson.
Tompkinson was also excited. “He [Russell] came back after the first performance and said, ‘thank you for giving me my play back’. That’s lovely, and that comments been driving us all the way through, we just strive to make it better every time if we can,” he said.
At the end of August, the pair performed at the Minack, an outdoor theatre on a cliff edge at Lands’ End, Cornwall.
They emphasised how excited they are to be performing Educating Rita for an audience again.
Johnson said: “It’s going to be so wonderful being back in a theatre, I can’t wait to see it you know, I can’t wait to see an audience.”
Tompkinson said: “It’s lasted 40 years for a reason, and it’s lovely to keep bringing it to people and it’s just great to be able to tell Rita and Frank’s story.”
The Rose is a Covid-19 secure venue, with face masks and hand sanitiser mandatory, and temperature checks done for everyone on arrival.
Tickets are available at https://www.rosetheatre.org/whats-on/educating-rita/book-tickets and the show will be running at The Rose from October 28 to November 14.