Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2010; Trafalgar Studios Summer-Autumn 2010; Menier Spring 2012
(The transfer and revival had cast changes.)
A 29-year-old hairdresser, vaguely hoping that there has to be more to life than gossip, pop music and making babies, enrols in an Open University course in the quaint faith that learning to write critical essays about literature will feed the shameful (because not shared by her friends and family) hunger she feels.
Her tutor, a drunken wash-out himself, falls in love with the vitality and freshness in her spirit, and fears that giving her the academic skills she wants will destroy all that is unique and special about her.
He's wrong, as it turns out, and although happiness and fulfilment don't lie exactly where she thought they would, she has chosen the right path for her to find them.
And so Educating Rita is another of Willy Russell's delightful celebrations of a working class woman's emancipation from the constraints of her limited world, and a warm and happy experience for the audience.
Although in this production Larry Lamb does much to flesh out the tutor and give him an emotional reality, the character is really just a feed and straight man to Rita, and Lamb's is a very generous performance, never stealing the spotlight from where it belongs.
Because this really is the actress's play - thirty years ago it made a star out of Julie Walters (who, of course, like all overnight stars, had been acting for over a decade, making herself ready for the moment lightning struck).
Laura Dos Santos captures all of the vitality, humour, undeniable intelligence and raw energy of the character, particularly in the earlier scenes.
She's a little less successful in hanging on to those qualities as Rita 'matures' and becomes more serious, so that you may leave the show fearing that the tutor's fears were justified, and something was lost in the woman as she mastered academic jargon.
Perhaps after the first few performances director Jeremy Sams will guide the young actress toward finding a way to hang on to all that is special about Rita even as the character develops.
But even with that one reservation, Educating Rita remains a thoroughly delightful, frequently very touching, and ultimately very life-affirming theatrical experience.
Educating Rita is being offered in rep with Russell's Shirley Valentine, with a different cast and director - evidently the first time anyone has ever thought to do that.
The plays complement each other nicely, as both are about women finding an unexpected path to richer and happier lives, and both are done so well here that it would be difficult to recommend one over the other.
See both – check with the theatre for the performance schedule - and get a double dose of Willy Russell's life-affirming elixir.
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of Educating Rita - Menier Chocolate Factory 2010