The Lyric Theatre saw a trail of heels take to the stairs with coats trailing along behind them, welcoming the warmth after coming in from a cold Belfast night. All there for the same reason, the much anticipated showing of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. There was that familiar undeniable buzz that comes with being at the theatre and no seat was left unfilled.
As the music grew louder from the stage, the lights dimmed around the audience and the programmes were tucked away into bags. All attention from this point was on the stage, and there it remained throughout the evening.
With Russell’s blessing and guidance, the action of the play was relocated from Liverpool 1980 to Belfast 1980 (though never revealing to the audience which side). The relocation of the story allowed the audience to connect on a greater level and when Kerri Quinn breezed on stage to take on the role of Susan ‘Rita’ White, she could have been any relatable Belfast woman to the audience. Within the character of Rita, there were the traits of a 1980’s Belfast auntie, a mother’s friend, or indeed, the hairdresser from down the way captured within this one character. A no nonsense working class hairdresser sick to the back teeth of feeling inadequate, uncultured and dealing with OAPS wanting to come out a different person via perm.
Similarly, Michael James Ford did an outstanding job taking on the role of weary lecturer Frank. Once a passionate educator, he lost his enthusiasm along the way to the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Frank would have much preferred to dwindle his hours away in the pub, avoiding life. That is until Rita storms into his office and stirs the creativity up once again within the room, bringing along with her a sharp tongue.
The two characters are as opposite as E. M. Forsters Howards End and Rita Mae Browns Rubyfruit Jungle yet they connected outstandingly, bouncing off each other’s wit. From the start we can see that these two are going to bring out good humour in one another.
The sequence of short scenes, with the use of music and a simple change of clothing to transition the scenes allows the audience to observe the characters and relationship between the two of them grow significantly over time.
It’s after the interval, when the audience take to their seats again with drinks and snacks clutched in hands, that we see a momentous change in the two characters. Rita has left the sharp tongue and cloud of cigarette smoke back in the salon – discarding the brassy name Rita along the way, opting for the more educated choice of Susan instead, while Frank has fallen further down the whiskey bottle. The deterioration and visible change in the character of Frank is similar to that of Mickey towards the end of Russell’s Blood Brothers and Frank could have very well remained in a drunken stupor for the remainder of his time, if it wasn’t for Rita hauling him back up again with her undeniable passion and urge to learn.
Although the set remained the same hidden away study throughout, a bigger picture is painted for the audience, with the help of helicopter noises whirling around outside of the study and Rita’s constant referral to the social norms and lifestyle “round our way”. The audience gets a look at Belfast pre hunger strike and the times that these characters are living in, including Rita’s struggles to break through the constraints of working class Belfast life at the time.
The play drew to a close with the light hearted humour that is so greatly began with I expected no less than the standing ovation that it so greatly deserved to end with. Siobhan Murphy
Educating Rita runs from 30th January to 28th February in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.