Who can forget the dynamic duo Michael Caine and Julie Walters in the Oscar winning film Educating Rita – she the Liverpudlian hairdresser striving for a better life through Open University, and he frustrated professor Frank Bryant battling his own demons? 

“theatre is the bare bones of acting for me”

And yet the award-winning movie was based on a play written by Willy Russell, he of Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers fame, 40 years ago.

Which was one of the things Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson discussed in a pub in Newcastle after a play. Jess had played the role of Rita before and thought Stephen would make a great Frank.

But instead of forgetting all about their conversation, the duo made it their mission to revive the brilliant play with the famous playwright’s blessing, and so successful was the initial tour and West End run, that the duo are back with a 40th anniversary additional run, and coming to Oxford.

“I like to blame Jess and she likes to blame me”

“We are thrilled that we’ve been asked to come back and reconnect with audiences all over the country,” Stephen told me. We were so lucky to get this production off the ground so we have been really involved from day one.”

The play of course, is totally different to the film, the entire plot being set in Frank’s office. “It makes it more intense, especially as it’s a double-hander,” Stephen says.

So has it travelled well? “Willy hasn’t been afraid to get the scissors out to make it fresher and more relevant to today. Audiences don’t need to be spoon-fed these days, so he has taken out any repetition, and he’s so proud of the results and the rappore it still has with an audience. Because he has such a voice,” he says.

Famous for his roles in Ballykissangel, Wild at Heart , Drop the Dead Donkey, Grafters and DCI Banks, Stephen was recently at the Oxford Playhouse in Art with Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson, another intense, fast, three-hander which was all about timing and a sparkling dialogue.

“here we are still talking about sexism and equality, politics and sexism, the same discussion they were having 40 years ago”

So is it a case of back into the breach with Educating Rita then? “I’m a glutton for punishment,” Stephen laughs, “but this was such an exciting opportunity. I like to blame Jess and she likes to blame me.

“And yes it’s quite unusual to be doing it this way around, but we are very proud of how well it has gone so far, and now the 40th anniversary tour – it’s such a privilege.

“But it does mean you have to focus and concentrate even harder – you are more alert and rely on the audience’s vocal reaction – they are more integral to the piece.

“And we are putting in the miles. On one of our days off we had to travel from Exeter to Inverness!”

Why does he think people love the story of Rita and Frank so much? “It’s still so relevant and while both characters are very different, despite their backgrounds, they are so believable and likeable. You can see both of their points of view and we all fall in love with them a bit. But that’s because Willy Russell as as good at depicting men as women.

“It’s a brilliantly written play, and a universal story of two lost souls, mismatched people in terms of character and background who meet at the right time to help each other in life.”

It works both ways though. Stephen, 54, recalls: “Willy came back stage after the first night and said: “Thank you for giving me my play back”.  That was just wonderful, because it was what we were trying to achieve.”

Stephen is obviously enjoying theatre then despite his stellar screen career? “I’m very, very happy on stage. I love mixing up the mediums. I love the variety. On stage you can tell the whole story – the beginning, the middle and the end. Filming is much more cut up, but theatre is the bare bones of acting for me.

For Jessica, the character of Rita has particular resonance. Like Rita, she also returned to university education as a mature student.

“I was 23 when I went to university,” she recalls. “Before then life kept getting in the way. Some people are ready for studying at different times and when I got to 23 I was ready for it.”

Jessica also says the play gave her personal inspiration: “From a very young age when I read Educating Rita, it gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life. Jess also used the play as her audition piece for years, so knows the script well.

“I felt that connection with her, the class struggle, the social struggle, the want for something better – that’s something I could get behind and I hope that I bring that to the part.

Sunderland-raised Jessica says: “It’s a discussion we’re still having now, about opportunities for young people and the disparity of wealth. 

“I’m a working class girl and there were certain opportunities not available to me, because of where I came from and I get that with Rita. There’s this want, this need, this search for something more out of life.  It does resonate. But more than that it’s about humanity and what it means to be human.

“And here we are still talking about sexism and equality, politics and sexism, the same discussion they were having 40 years ago.”

“So yes, I love playing Rita – she is such a strong, interesting woman that we all relate to, and I’ve never played at the Oxford Playhouse so that will be a new experience for me too! We can’t wait to open there.”

Educating Rita runs from Tuesday 4 to Saturday 8 February at Oxford Playhouse. Tickets start at £10 at 01865 305305 or www.oxfordplayhouse.com 

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