Educating Rita

Emma Jordan tactfully transposes Willy Russell's play to Belfast with help from two extraordinary leads in this fine start to the year for the Lyric Theatre

'I want to know!' 'Want to know what?' 'EVERYTHING!' 

This is Rita’s cri de coeur throughout Willy Russell’s play. She has 'a hungry mind' and has always felt different from her friends and family. She burns to learn. A shame then that the man allocated to nurture her burgeoning education is a sour and bitter would-be poet who does his most effective lecturing in the saloon bar.

The first indication of director Emma Jordan’s 'Belfastification' of the play is subtle - Van Morrison’s 'You Don't Pull No Punches, but You Don't Push the River' wafts gently in as Frank potters around his room. It’s okay, it barely jars – the record scratches and repeats. Frank, (Michael James Ford) sozzled and self-hating, has been careless with it as he has been with everything in his life.

He stands, buttoned up in a brown cardie and slacks, restlessly searching the shelves of his library until he finds his quarry: 'Where is Dickens? Ah, good old Charlie – genius and keeper of the Bushmills!' (the play’s second nod to its new location).

Frank, is having a quick pick-me-up before embarking on his first ever Open University lesson. He hates the idea but he likes the money – it means more time down the boozer. An expository phone-call from Julia, Frank’s partner, wrestling at home with a near immortal cassoulet, tells us everything we need to know about Frank: he is bellicose, he is bitter, he is a snob, he is careless with people, and he has a powerful thirst.

Into this pit of academe, then, bursts Rita. Or rather she doesn’t – she rattles the door handle, yelling through the bevelled pane until Frank, reluctantly, lets her in. Once through this portal, Rita (Kerri Quinn) is all over the place, gangling like a newborn foal, chewing gum, investigating everything.

It’s like she has been thrust into a new world and she is anxious to discover everything. And of course for her this is a brave new world. 'How do you make a room like this?' asks the wide-eyed Rita. 'I don’t do anything.' Frank says, flatly.

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Stuart Marshall’s set design is one of the prettiest and most elegant I’ve ever seen on a Belfast stage. Littered with books, proper ones, well-thumbed and hard-backed, there are lamp-shades gathering realistic dust and there is leather and wood everywhere. On the desk there’s one of those nice green lamps with brass fittings. If I ever drift off into a 'brown study' as nice as this I’ll be one happy melancholic.

Ford’s exasperated growl is lovely and the back and forth between them is fizzy, crackling. Quinn’s is a spitfire turn – she is the hairdresser who wants to change on the inside.

Helicopters drone as white lights flash past the window. Frank watches them, distractedly, and without comment. It is one of the better attempts at verisimilitude for Belfast in the early eighties precisely because it is unobtrusive, unspoken. The characters know this; it is part of the fabric of their daily lives.

More soft lobs for the theatre crowd: Frank’s utter disgust at the notion of viewing Macbeth as an amateur production. His sneer hits the back of the room with a palpable thwack.

After the interval – introduced once again by Van Morrison, this time with 'Beside You' – there is a fundamental change in Rita. She’s been to London. She’s been to summer school. She’s discovered the joy of vintage. She’s confident. She’s quit smoking.

Frank, on the other hand, is in a bad way: Julia has left him: 'Nothing to do with the cassoulet'. As he continues to drown his sorrows it transpires that students have reported him for giving a lecture drunk: 'I was glorious! I fell off the rostrum twice!' When Rita throws up her hands in despair, he adds, 'I may have fallen off but I went down talking. I didn’t miss a syllable.'

Frank can’t let go. Her essay on Blake does not reflect his views but those of her new peer-approved authorities. Frank clings to the notion of the girl he once knew, unable to deal with the fact that she has changed. She no longer struggles to open his door, when they talk she sits behind his desk, when she turns up for class, increasingly infrequently, she wants to learn.

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But Frank, fixated on the idea of the woman she once was, is in no fit state to teach her. 'You can’t bear to spend a moment here!' he spits. 'Why don’t you just go away? I can’t bear it any longer.' 'Can’t bear what?' 'Can’t bear you!'

This is a fantastic production of Willy Russell’s play and both leads are extraordinary. Kerri Quinn manages to portray Rita’s transformation in subtle ways whilst maintaining the furious energy required to spit-ball the writer’s pithy dialogue.

Frank’s story, foreshadowed by his description of Macbeth’s tragic end as inevitable, feels equally fated. The university has suggested a sabbatical in Australia and he’s taken it – without Julia. It could be the making of him but Frank has a history of heeding no warnings and a slow boat to the Southern hemisphere could finish him off.

Emma Jordan’s direction is fierce and committed: the energy never flags, the performers spar beautifully. When Christmas is indicated by the bottles hidden in Frank’s library lighting up like fairy lights I want to break into spontaneously applause (I don’t).

If I have any quibbles it’s that the radio broadcasts in the second half slightly over-egg the verisimilitude – we know we’re in Belfast now. We feel it – the actors have done their jobs. But it’s a minor gripe: this is a fine start to the Lyric’s New Year and an entirely successful production of a brilliant play.

Educating Rita runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until March 5. For more details and booking information visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/event/educating-rita. Images by Steffan Hill.