Willy Russell's Educating Rita

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson 18 Aug 2020 - 30 Aug 2020

When married hairdresser Rita enrols on a university course to expand her horizons, little does she realise where the journey will take her.

Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker, who's less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on, but the two soon realise how much they have to teach each other.

This hilarious and heart-warming comedy won the Olivier award when it was produced in London's West End by the RSC and was adapted into the multi award winning film which starred Julie Walters and Michael Caine.

Written by one of our greatest ever playwrights Willy Russell and starring one of our best loved actors Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and introducing Jessica Johnson as Rita.

Willy Russell has adapted his wonderful play especially for the Minack Theatre. Educating Rita will be performed outside, with no interval and observing social distancing.


Production Reviews

The Daily Telegraph 20 August 2020

‘Mansplaining’ not an issue for this tough Rita

By Dominic Cavendish

There’s common-or-garden al fresco performance, and then there’s sitting at the Minack Theatre, on grass and stone tiers, upon the cliffs a few miles from Land’s End.  Most summers, it’s worth the detour down a narrow, windy Cornish road.  But this year, amid a desert of theatrical activity elsewhere, this little oasis has received an extra fillip to its programme in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, a top-end touring show that was scheduled to play major regional venues until Covid-19 struck.

At first glance, no interloper in this spectacular setting could be more incongruous than the wistfully comic story – first aired 40 years ago, and made into an award-winning 1983 film – of a young Liverpudlian hairdresser who goes on a journey of scholastic awakening under the guidance of a middle-aged, drink-addled English literature lecturer.

An array of bookcases has been mustered on stage, along with a sturdy desk and armchair, but behind inbuild stone-arched windows like glimpses of the surging sea – against which the flowering of Russell’s heroine might seem paltry.  The tempest was the inaugural production at the Minack in 1932 and the place seems to demand Sturm und Drang.  But the theatre’s founding mother, Rowena Cade, would have approved of Rita, a garrulous lass who’s avoiding child-rearing and has resolved – against her husband’s wishes – to become “the sort of educated woman who knows the difference between Oscar Wilde and Kim Wilde”.  Thanks to a performance by Jessica Johnson of tenacious and flinty spirit, the unreal staging starts to make sense as a perch from which Rita can spread her wings – to the satisfaction-cum-forlorn dismay of her tutor, Frank.

Today their dynamic – a male pedagogue implants his wisdom – may seem like an old-school stereotype.  And Stephen Tompkinson, fending off the wind on the first night of Max Roberts’s production by paper-weighting his documents, could do with making Frank’s advisories sound less like bellowing mansplaining.

But he shares with Johnson a likeability, presence and focus that keeps you watching, and refraining from easy judgment.  His marriage, too, has hit the rocks, while his bedraggled air, as he glugs whisky from a mug, lets you know that the lovely Rita will gain the upper hand.  Reading between the lines, Frank is less a throwback to paternalistic pomp than an early Eighties harbinger of masculine entitlement’s decline and fall as – feminist or no – Mrs Thatcher advanced centre-stage.



The Mail on Sunday 22 August 2020

Cornwall's open air Minack Theatre revives Educating Rita and it is a joy

by Robert Gore Langton

The Minack open-air theatre, near Land’s End, is doing an actual play – a rare event indeed in this endless theatre drought. The planned tour was kyboshed by Covid but it has been salvaged for a run at this spectacular cliffside venue. I saw it in a high wind better suited to The Tempest: the actors’ hair was all over the shop, and the cast had to slide paperweights around to hold down Rita’s English Literature essays.

Jessica Johnson is an energetic, funny Scouse sass-pot and partners well with Stephen Tompkinson – warm, emphatic and pompous as her sozzled tutor Frank.

Jessica Johnson is an energetic, funny Scouse sass-pot and partners well with Stephen Tompkinson – warm, emphatic and pompous as her sozzled tutor Frank

Willy Russell’s play, celebrating its 40th anniversary, still works its magic, however.  Rita is the unhappily married Mersey hairdresser – or, rather, hurdresser – who, by doing an Open University course, seeks more from her life. Her literary criticism is initially from the hip. ‘Wasn’t his wife a cow?’ she says of Macbeth. Howards End is ‘really crap’. And as for Yeats, she thinks he’s a wine lodge.

Jessica Johnson is an energetic, funny Scouse sass-pot – Julie Walters was, of course, the original Rita – who goes from being a blunt chisel to a honed critic. She partners well with that excellent light comic actor Stephen Tompkinson – warm, emphatic and pompous as her sozzled tutor Frank (the Michael Caine part in the film version), a failed poet who glugs whisky stashed behind Dickens and E.M. Forster in his book-lined den. It’s his job to discipline the mind of the irreverent student who wants to escape her life of curling tongs and married oppression. She of course ends up educating Frank.

It’s curious how you remember Rita’s more serious observations of literature over Frank’s professional judgments. Indeed, one of the themes here is that Rita is transformed, by her own thirst for literature, into a more optimistic version of Frank. The difference being that Rita has the moral courage that has deserted her tutor, whose  marriage is on the rocks and who wallows in Scotch topped up with self-pity. It is sharp-eyed Rita who comes at him with the burning question as to why he stopped writing poetry. That same question might well be asked about Willy Russell’s playwriting career; his absence from the stage in recent decades is one of the theatre’s great mysteries. He was a superb folk dramatist who seems to have run out of plays.

Forty years on, Educating Rita still sounds witty and wise and you can feel the author’s love for Rita beaming through.  

If Educating Rita occasionally stretches belief – I never quite bought that this particular Frank had read all those books you can see lining his study – Russell crams in more soul and emotional clout than you get in much posher dramas about the emancipating power of literature. Forty years on, it still sounds witty and wise and you can feel the author’s love for Rita beaming through, just as it does in his later creation, Shirley Valentine.

It’s a joy to revisit in this revival (by Max Roberts) set against knock-out views of a restless sea of the sort romantic poets bang on about.

Pocketsizetheatre.com 22 August 2020

Educating Rita at the Minack Theatre, Cornwall

by Nick Wayne

Minack Theatre is a unique venue, perched on the cliffside near Lands End in Cornwall. Its global reputation has grown since its creator Rowena Cade first set out to create the setting in 1932 with over 250,000 annual visitors to the site until COVID closed all UK theatres in March. So it was wonderful to visit it for the first time to see David Pugh's production of Willy Russell's brilliant comedy Educating Rita about a kooky Liverpudlian woman, Rita, seeking to improve herself by discovering the joys of poetry, books and plays under the tutelage of ageing alcoholic tutor, Frank. On tour when the pandemic shut indoor theatres it became one of the first titles to open again in an outdoor venue as soon as the restrictions lifted it easily broke box office records as the public rushed to enjoy both the return to live theatre and to experience the spectacular setting.

When you are guided to the socially distanced seating with cushion in hand an hour before the start time with a wary eye on the clouds overhead in case the threatened rain starts to fall you immediately begin to sense the dramatic theatrical location. The waves from the Atlantic crash on to the rocks that form the backdrop to the small stage with the cliffs and sand of Porthcurno bay in the distance and an occasional seagull overhead it is magical and must have been perfect for its first production of The Tempest. However, the same backdrop is a little distracting for the much more intimate story set in a university lecturers small office and present the two actors with a constant challenge of the wind blowing their long hair and the pages of the books they are studying.

Equally the challenge for the actors is that they are recreating two characters made famous by Michael Caine and Julie Walters in the 1983 film in perfect casting. Stephen Tompkinson (known for his TV role in Ballykissangel, DCI Banks and Wild at Heart) plays Frank and Jessica Johnson plays Rita. You sensed that Tompkinson seemed to be battling the elements slightly over emphasising his words and constantly making sure he weighted down the papers. Johnson too struggled at times with her Liverpudlian accent and was always in a rush with multiple costume changes in this episodic structure. The script has been stripped back to a ninety-minute running time without an interval to minimise social contact in the audience.

However, now of these issues matter as it is just wonderful to be back in a live theatre watching two very good actors doing their very best to entertain an expectant audience. Rita is a lively enthusiastic student endearingly seeking to improve herself and create options for herself in her life and we warm to her and her efforts to learn. Frank is a world-weary former poet existing in his university life on the hidden bottles of alcohol that dull rather than enliven his artistic senses. He gradually sees the potential of Rita and we are left hoping he will change not just his hair cut but his ways as Rita completes her course. The gap in classes in society feels like it has narrowed over the years since this was written but the recent controversy over exam results suggests that the poorer still struggle to get the same life opportunities as the better-off children. Like Rita, it is to be hoped that those who genuinely make the efforts do get their just rewards.

The sound quality against the noise of the waves and wind is satisfactory although seated in the rear section A, high up on the cliff face you do have to concentrate hard to hear every word and struggle to see their facial expressions in the way you would indoors. However it is such a joy to be back watching live theatre and the Minack theatre and David Pugh deserve every success, and a big box office to recover the losses from being closed for most of the season. The show does go on regardless of the rainfall ( only the occasional storm warning stops the action) and the long trek down to the UK's most westerly point is definitely worth the effort.

Broadwayworld.com 27 August 2020

Stephen Tompkinson leads this revival at Cornwall's outdoor theatre

by Caroline Cronin      

The Minack Theatre doesn't need my recommendation to be a success. Renowned - even outside of theatre circles - as being the most beautifully unique performance space in the country, people travel for hours just for a glimpse of it, with the production itself often becoming secondary to its setting. Luckily, in this case, the quality of the play in question more than matched the beauty of its surroundings.

My recent visit as a first-timer to this much-celebrated space was to see Educating Rita - a truncated version of the David Pugh production that was due to tour the country, pre-Covid. I wasn't there on a press trip, I was there purely as a punter, desperate to achieve a long-lived ambition to visit the Minack, and to see Stephen Tompkinson perform live (big fan). So, is this going to be a traditional review? No. Much like the Minack myself, Educating Rita is already a critical success, and the show is totally sold out. Instead, let me take you on a journey of the post-Covid Minack experience, complete with highly uncool, emotionally fuelled gushings. Brace yourselves.

Let me confirm any rumours you may have heard about the Cornish weather - it is insane and utterly unpredictable. As many advised me, you need to go armed with anoraks and jumpers and sunglasses and shorts and woolly hats and plastic ponchos for good measure. As we were guided into the Minack car park by a very cheery attendant, the weather was decidedly grey - not too chilly, but there was a whiff of rain in the air which I was blindly refusing to acknowledge.

The standing queue began to form in the small car park directly outside the theatre entrance, with several staff on hand to ensure that we queued in a snake-like fashion, using the car park markings as guidance for social distancing. The information shack in the car park was open, serving snacks and refreshments, and it also acted as a relocated gift shop selling a limited selection of merchandise.

Upon reaching the check-in desk, we were given information about the one-way system inside the theatre, and asked to clean our hands with the sanitiser provided. We obliged, and as we turned the corner to see our first glimpse of the Minack in all its glory, the sun suddenly emerged and the sea began to sparkle as if diamonds were dancing on the swell. The grey had disappeared, and it was like we were in our own little micro-climate. What witchcraft IS this?! I will forever swear that it was magic.

Sadly, the indoor cafe and exhibition centre were closed, but with the beauty of the botanical gardens to explore, it didn't feel like we were left wanting. The Terrace snack bar was open - which is nestled in between the raked seating areas - and remained open throughout the performance, too, so there were plenty of opportunities to refuel.

As we wandered through the gardens to the first usher (it felt SO good to encounter an usher for the first time in six months...all hail FOH staff!), we were checked in again and guided to our row by a different usher, who allocated us our 'seats' on the row. Each row doesn't have specific seat area markings, but under usual circumstances (or if you're from the same household/bubble), each one can fit six to seven people.

As I was there with one person from my bubble, we were sat at the far end of the row, and told that if anyone else was placed in our row, it would be no more than two people and they'd be at the opposite end. It all felt very controlled and safe, and it transpired that no one else sat on our row, so we had incredible amounts of space. Every other row was left free to ensure distancing was observed, so there was at least a metre between us and the people in front and behind us.

Even if one hasn't been to the Minack, most are familiar with the much-photographed views of the stone-carved stage nestled with the epic backdrop of Porthcurno Bay. But there is nothing like being there in person. We've all talked a lot recently about the value that online theatre has delivered to us during lockdown, and debated how it may have a future alongside traditional theatre. That remains a relevant and important discussion, but deep down we all know that a live, in-person experience can deliver something far more special, and the Minack is the finest example of that.

It's tempting to spend the whole time taking photos, but there is value in just letting yourself sit with what's in front of you. With every seat in the theatre offering a more beautiful view than the last, there is surely no audience member who would be disappointed. During the performance, it's essential to let the eye wander at times and observe the sea as it brightly ebbs and flows (no dolphin sightings for us, sadly!), to take in the sweeping coastline...and as the sun sets and the stage lights come up, the mood shifts from excitement to a kind of spellbinding tranquility. There's something about being by the sea at night that evokes a contradictory sense of serene foreboding, which is rather affecting and made my heart beat a little bit faster.

But let's get onto the production in question, because although it doesn't need my rave review, it's sure going to get one. Educating Rita depicts the journey of a middle-aged professor called Frank, who is enlisted into his first Open University tutoring experience. Rita, a working-class woman in her thirties, is his first student. His highly cerebral yet slightly shambolic existence clashes with Rita's unaffected manner and worldly views at first, but over time they both open each other's eyes, and hearts, to new ideas and experiences.

In this Willy Russell production, Stephen Tompkinson brings a sardonic wit to the intellectual Frank - he's an unhappy and disillusioned drunk but he knows it, and is likeable in his self-deprecation. Jessica Johnson has a tough job as Rita, with epically long and rapid monologues, delivered with such pace that it feels like she barely takes a breath for 90 minutes. Her handling of this material is impressive, and she has you immediately in the palm of her hand.

Despite this production losing around 18 minutes from its original run time, nothing in the narrative feels wanting. Speaking to producer David Pugh, he explains how this transition came about:

"The idea to move the production to the Minack came about when I heard that they had made their own enquiry about doing their own production of 'Educating Rita'. So I called up Zoe [Curnow, Executive Director of the Minack], who I know well, and asked her if it was true, and that I had a production of it ready to go.

"When we did the numbers at first, they just didn't make sense, and I didn't want to take the risk...but before I knew it, I was on a train down to Cornwall, and within a few hours we'd done the deal! Willy was the first phone call I made from the Minack, and he worked with the director to reduce the run time and remove the interval. Hopefully, audiences agree that there aren't any obvious gaps."

Indeed, I felt that the deepening relationship between Rita and Frank felt authentic, and the time jumps actually gives the piece a nice pace. My only requirement for longer scenes would purely be so that it wasn't over so quickly. The set design has also been scaled back heavily from its original intention, with simple, unending rows of books forming a charming backdrop to the action.

The Minack's stunning setting can be a curse as well as a blessing, though, as Pugh elaborates:

"Finding a way to produce shows right now isn't easy, but we have to give audiences and investors confidence that demand is there and that we will survive. I tweeted about driving around Cornwall buying out all the clingfilm to wrap our thousands of books that form part of our set - I think if anyone touched our set at this point, it would just crumble! My stage manager and I also went on a mission to buy hundreds of paperweights, because the paperwork that Rita writes on kept flying all over the place. The rain isn't the biggest problem, it's the wind - and we've got to have two different types of sound mixing and various radio mics to use depending on the weather. We just make a decision each day which we're going to use."

Speaking to Pugh about the risk of producing theatre in this environment, he has a very clear view - it's absolutely necessary:

"We are completely buzzing, because we are working. It's as simple as that. The figures are tight - we will break even as long as we don't have to cancel more than 2.5 shows - but we're keeping people in work and that's what's important. In fact, we are the only play that's currently performing on stage in the UK right now, and I'm proud of that.

It's been a joy to be able to produce as I should produce. The reaction from everyone involved in creating this piece, as well as the audience, has been very special, and I think it can give us all hope."

Hope. Isn't that exactly what we're all craving right now? Being perched on the edge of the country and sharing this unique experience with my fellow patrons was a very unifying and intimate experience. I felt more connected than I had in a long time - to strangers, to the natural beauty of our shores...and to my precious theatre community. It filled me up in a way that nothing but theatre can, and that's in equal parts due to the friendly theatre staff, the superb cast, the brave creatives, and the enchanting magic of the Cornish coast.


The Cornishman 28 August 2020

By Jenni Balow

Frank's library of books is very soggy, and there was more than a leak in his ceiling, as the heavens have thrown great water-filled galeforce gusts at this superb 40th anniversary sell-out production during its two week run.

On only the second night it was washed-out and cancelled, and the stormy weather has threatened many performances of Willy Russell's wonderful comedy run, which ends on Sunday. (Aug 30)

The nationwide anniversary tour of this play was halted from March to August by the coronavirus pandemic, so hardy Minack ticket holders counted themselves very lucky to sit through this feelgood gem, whatever the weather.

The production starring TV favourite Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, produced by David Pugh and directed by Max Roberts, was adapted for the open air Minack stage by Willy Russell, who celebrated his 73rd birthday during the run.

Providently, just in case it rained, he added the line: "There's a leak in your ceiling, Frank"  -  which was just as well.

Russell was commissioned to write the play by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, and it was a hit, winning Olivier, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for the later film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine.

He says that it was only in retrospect that he realised it told a story pretty close to his own experience in life. He left school to become a hairdresser, later returning to further education, and teaching, having been mentored by his librarian father in law.

Ten years before he wrote the play, the Open University was founded, giving many working class and mature students the chance to extend their education and the number of choices they could make.

This two-hander finds Rita, a hairdresser who is in a marriage that is going no-where, faced with the option of no longer taking the Pill, and having a baby, but who first wants to learn everything about the finest authors and playwrights via an Open University course on English Literature.

She has been assigned Frank, a poet, academic and dedicated drinker, for one to one tutorials.

He's bored and jaded, but she is driven, curious, bright, honest and hungry for knowledge - and an outspoken Liverpudlian.

It could go either way. In fact, it goes rather well for both of them, as Rita's aspirations "to know everything" trigger a "that is rather a lot" resigned but intrigued response in Frank, who will ultimately find himself being lectured on the other side of his desk, as Rita advises him from his tutor's chair.

Stephen Tompkinson, well known elsewhere as DCI Banks, and Jessica Johnson spark off one another totally convincingly. He is crumpled in corduroy, she is smart and becomes increasingly sassy, casting aside her knitted jumpers in favour of student dungarees, after a successful summer school.

The by now soggy set and costumes have been put together in 1980s fashion by Patrick Connellan.

This warm, unpretentious play is still so relevant 40 years after it was written, and this classy production is a real winner, just like Rita.

The Observer 30 August 2020

An unflappable duo braved the elements in Willy Russell’s comedy drama. 

by Clare Brennan

Arriving at the Minack theatre, I am more than thrilled to be back at a live performance, but less than sure that this particular play will work here. Educating Rita is set in a northern, redbrick university – specifically, in the stuffy office of an English lecturer-cum-erstwhile minor poet. This open-air amphitheatre clings to a Cornish cliffside, a wide, blue horizon stretches beyond its wind-scoured stage.

Isn’t Willy Russell’s 1980 hit comedy better suited to a venue such as Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, where this production opened last year, under Max Roberts’s direction? The contrast between this site and the fiction is as great as… well, as the contrast between the erudite, irascible Frank and his new, eager mature student, Rita, a hairdresser with no qualifications enthusiastically embarking on an Open University course.

Enter Frank: long, wispy hair, lashing across his face, hinders his search for the whisky bottle hidden on his bookshelves. Frantically fluttering papers threaten to fly from his desk; he grabs at glass weights to hold them down. Rita blows in, makes to take off her coat: a gust almost rips it from her back. Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson respond deftly to such unpredictabilities, cleverly adapting them to their characterisations.

Tompkinson uses the wind’s buffetings to intensify our impression that Frank is flailing desperately to take control of his job, his love life and his drinking; that, as a poet, he is trapped under the weight of his own defeated expectations. Taking a tight grip on her coat, Johnson guides it along the air current and loops it firmly on to a hook, her gesture emphasising Rita’s determination not to be dictated to by circumstances, to take charge of her life.

A gull swoops over the stage just as Rita is telling Frank that Chekhov’s The Seagull is a “dead sad” play. Before us, two people are making choices that limit or expand their horizons. This is, after all, a most appropriate setting.