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Educating Rita. Caxton Theatre, Grimsby. 20 - 27 January 2024

Educating Rita

by Willy Russell

The Caxton Players

The Caxton Theatre, Grimsby

January 20th - 27th 2024

Willy Russell's plays were what drew me to the Caxton Theatre back in the early 1990s when as a new member, I performed as Eddie in Russell's Stags and Hens before going on to develop a deep and lasting passion for live theatre that exists to this day. So, pardon me if I am a little enthusiastic when I see one of Russell's plays done well, but rest assured I can also be the harshest critic when something by him is not done well. It is safe to say though, that Stephen Labourne's new production of Educating Rita is excellent. It is well-cast with two affable leads, and the set looks sumptuous and scholarly whilst at the same time succeeding in looking slightly world-weary and worn - a bit like it's occupant, Frank.

The play will always draw comparison to George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and the later musical adaptation My Fair Lady and to a degree, it is fair to refer to this piece as My Fair Scouser. But such comparisons, can also be rebuffed as Russell takes the Shavian premise and plays with it in unexpected ways. Academic and alcoholic Frank, does not wish to take on his student, unlike Professor Higgins and also (unlike Higgins) there is no bet employed to persuade him to do so. Instead, this story concerns a sparky young woman who desperately wishes to improve herself and who takes the initiative, almost bullying Frank into accepting her as a student. Rita has named herself, she has taken on an alias in order to better herself adopting the first name of her favourite author. She is married and working in a hairdressers (Willy Russell's original career before turning to writing). She want to avail herself to great works of literature, to discover what makes them great and why they have stood the test of time.

Rita's opinions are unencumbered by academic strictures and smack of genuine honesty as she dismisses E.M. Forster and others with her acerbic wit and sharp tongue. It is this original thinking that draws Frank towards Rita and persuades him to take her on, whilst always hoping that she will remain true to herself and her views when exposed to "learning". This is a story of self-improvement and self-development. A story of the struggle to break free from the ties that bind and the discovery of self and self-awareness. This production from the Caxton Players, more than does justice to this concept and audiences will adore the cast as the play progresses.

The title role of Rita is played by Amy Wilson who brings warmth, charm and spark to the part. You can believe that Rita's life at the salon is dull and frustrating as she asks her one millionth customer if they are going anywhere nice for their holidays or the like. Rita doesn't feel that she is better than those around her, but recognises that there is more for her to experience and understand in life. Wilson personifies those hopes, dreams and aspirations as she seeks to expand her horizons even if it means making some painful decisions along the way.

You root for Rita from the outset thanks to the way in which Wilson brings a bubble and a bounce too her, without ever over-playing the role. There are sharp edges to Rita and her caustic sense of humour but they are always softened by Wilson's winning smile and soulful eyes that tell you the story is deeper than merely performing Willy Russell's text. Her Scouse accent never drops throughout the play and you forget that Wilson is not a native Liverpudlian. Audiences will fall a little bit in love with Rita and will be egging her on to find the life that she truly deserves and hoping that her self-improvement is not in vain. Following her performance as Judy in Labourne's last play, Home I'm Darling, Amy Wilson is proving to be a very strong asset to the Caxton Players and given the right roles and direction, will go on to even greater performances.

As Frank, Josh Wainwright is another performer who has managed to show real depth and range in his performances at the Caxton Theatre. His Frank is erudite but would never be described as an urbane academic. He is certainly not the suave sophisticate that Professor Henry Higgins is in Pygmalion. Frank is a towering intellect disguised as a shambling, alcohol dependent mess of a man with a broken marriage and a failing relationship with his current partner. There was a time when he was younger that Frank's ambition matched his ability as a published poet of some promise. Those days are now long behind him as his sharpness and mental acuity are dulled by years of telling students what to think and how to read literature. He has become a ghost of his former self.

That is why Rita offers Frank a fresh chance to see why he fell in love with literature himself and is drawn to her outlandish explanations that initially amuse but ultimately captivate his attention. It is not a physical attraction to Rita, but a deep-seated emotional connection and a respect for individuality in the face of dusty academia that Frank respects. Wainwright succeeds effortlessly in presenting that aspect of Frank. It is easy to see Rita through Frank's eyes thanks to Wainwright's portrayal. We understand why he grows frustrated as Rita begins to become that which he detests in sausage factory-style academic thinking which churns out the responses that academics want to hear rather than fresh opinion on work. This mindset is in danger of resembling the deceived in The Emperor's New Clothes. Here, Wainwright presents a damaged and vulnerable individual, masquerading as a brash and forthright clever academic. It is a turn that will move the audience immensely.

There is so much to digest in what has now passed from being a contemporary comedy drama into a period study and no doubt the combined skills of Wilson and Wainwright will move, charm and delight audiences in equal measure and I cannot recommend this production highly enough. It marks a triumphant return to the stage at the Caxton Theatre for the work of Willy Russell and I hope that it will remind everyone that there is a market for such work even in the twenty-first century.

Tickets are available from all the usual outlets and the show opens on Saturday 20 January, running until Saturday 27 January.

Andy Evans 20 January 2024

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