Educating Rita really got me thinking.

I mean here’s a play written in 1980 by Willy Russell to highlight the disparities between the classes, sexes and education, in particular the struggle for working class women to break away from the kitchen sink and enrich themselves intellectually by chasing a tantalisingly academic get out of jail free card, that seems to be the answer to everyone’s problems.

Except that as the play develops, this golden chalice proves increasingly empty and meaningless, as the humanity of the characters and the reality of their lives alter the promise of this ultimate fulfilment.

But we know all this, either because we saw the original play, or more likely enjoyed the follow up 1983 Oscar-winning film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.

So to revisit it 40 years later and find it as enthralling and thought-provoking as before was a tad bewildering, because in these enlightened times shouldn’t it be dated?

“It travelled well,” one audience member remarked on leaving the Oxford Playhouse afterwards, where it’s on all week. How true. But why? And what does that say about us now?

It goes without saying then that this latest production, which has Willy Russell’s blessing, indeed he adapted the script to make it more au fait with the modern world, is as relevant now as ever.

Neither am I saying that we haven’t made vast inroads since then in terms of equality, education and sexism. But the current debate around privilege and private schools, the lack of state educated children in the top universities, city boys and salaries, the ongoing high pregnancy rates, and single motherdom, the increase in racism and insularity, this current embracing of traditionalism, means Educating Rita is as fascinating as ever.

Reinvigorated by the chance meeting between its co-stars Stephen Tompkinson of Ballykissangel and DCI Banks, and actress Jessica Johnson, the two dedicated themselves to making this revival happen.

It opened last year and this is now the 40th anniversary run. In short, it’s a massive success due in no small part to the fast, hip-shooting, dynamic, honest, respectful, chemistry-fuelled relationship between Frank – the Open University professor and failed poet with a drink problem, who takes on naive Open University student and hairdresser Rita. My only criticism would be that Jessica is hard to hear sometimes, perhaps due to the fast paced, constant dialogue, meaning our ears were craning to catch up.

Sparks literally fly between these two, as that slow reversal of fortune, power and pity spins ever faster, Rita’s desperation to escape from her boring and narrow existence and Frank’s willingness to spoon feed her and thus provide her with a ticket to the promised land, bringing its own set of problems. His fledgling bird soon grows wings of her own and wants to fly away, leaving Frank bereft and only too aware of his own inadequacies in the glaring internal mirror that Rita provides.

Is it patronising? At times. The idea that all working classes have ‘better songs to sing’, that education is the answer to all our problems, that the privileged don’t have the same struggles, that women haven’t been juggling families, frustrations and aspirations for as long as time stands still. And yet Willy Russell explores all of these ideas, reversing your sympathies and showing you how monsters can be created from the best intended ideology.

So get those little grey cells going and see if Willy Russell, Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson can give them a run for their money. Either way, Educating Rita provides a thought provoking night’s entertainment and was a pleasure to revisit, losing none of its original thrall in the process.

Educating Rita is at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday. Box office on 01865 305305 or oxfordplayhouse.com

Katherine MacAlister

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