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Educating Rita at the Gaiety Theatre (Review)

The works of Willy Russell have endured remarkably well.

Educating Rita holds up as perfectly today as it did when it was first written over a quarter of a century ago. For this latest production by Lyric Theatre, Russell has updated and tweaked the original text slightly. He translates the drama from Liverpool to Belfast, with director Emma Jordan reinforcing the shift in setting by punctuating the acts with snippets of radio coverage recalling the darkest days of the Troubles. The setting adds resonance to the themes of play and its characters, but the truth is that it’s hardly necessary.

Russell’s Educating Rita is a beautiful expression of that yearning to escape, of the desire to be “free”, whether from one’s economic conditions, the dreary drag the day-to-day life, or even one’s own destructive habits. It is a loving ode to those who find the courage to pursue that freedom, and a tragic paean for those who lack the strength. Jordan’s stage adaptation of Russell’s play captures that sense of desperation and passion beautifully, anchored in a powerhouse central performance by Kerri Quinn as the eponymous hairdresser.

Lyric Theatre’s adaptation of Educating Rita is a joy.

There is something universal in the desire to get away, to break out of the familiar holding patterns of the mundanity of everyday existence, to want to know more and to want to see more. The world is a big place full of wonder and mystery. It seems a waste to spend it all in one place. Educating Rita unfolds entirely in the office of a middle-aged university professor working through his own anxieties. Rita has enrolled in an Open University course to broaden her understanding of poetry and prose and Frank is her tutor.

Stuart Marshall’s set design is impressive, creating a stuffy and dusty environment for Frank. So overflowing with books that the myriad shelves can hardly contain them, and that even Frank is liable to lose track of where exactly he has hidden his gin, the office captures a sense of the both the potential and the tragedy of this environment. Those overcrowded bookshelves might be a gateway (or a ladder) to another world for Rita, but they’ve come to represent a prison for Frank.

However, Kerri Quinn is the real star of the show. Quinn brings Rita to life in a way that is entirely her own, no small accomplishment given the shadow cast by Julie Walters in the cinematic adaptation. Quinn’s Belfast accent is part of the Northern Irish texture of this adaptation, but her performance taps into the universality of Rita’s aspiration. It would seem almost trite to suggest that Rita is a character that resonates with Russell, a playwright who left school with only a D in English and who found himself considering a career as a women’s hairdresser.

Educating Rita is a classic for a reason, and Lyric Theatre have crafted an adaptation worthy of it.

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