first night

Educating Rita

Carrie Gaunt is blown away by Raving Mask's 'Educating Rita'

 

Willy Russell's Educating Rita is my favourite play, in the world, ever (so no pressure then). It's witty, wry, clever, pertinent, heart-breaking and hilarious in equal measure, like a modern-day Pygmalion if Eliza Doolitle were a disaffected Liverpudlian housewife and Henry Higgins slightly more cuddly but nursing a raging drink problem. It's also an eminently practical choice for a student production - featuring only two actors, performed entirely in one room and bearing the tantalisingly vague instruction 'set in the present day', the brevity of Educating Rita's practical needs offers plenty of scope for directorial creativity. And Raving Mask theatre company, under the expert leadership of director Ellie Gauge, have executed the project with aplomb, and then some.

The education of Rita by Dr Frank Bryant, a troubled academic hurtling inexorably towards his own metaphorical destruction (much like the tragic heroes he lectures about), is as much a social project as it is an academic one. This is the kind of education that extends to the sort of wine you buy, the dresses you wear, the books you read - but it remains to be seen whether either Frank or Rita, despite the latter's full-blooded committment to her training, will be satisfied, or 'completed', by the results.

This review runs the risk of being Frank's least favourite thing - sentimental. Not through lack of objectivity, but because I thought the whole production was one of the most captivating and beautifully crafted pieces of theatre I have ever seen in Durham and I am genuinely struggling to put my emotions aside and give a nuanced critique. Gauge, producer Allegra Dowley and actors Lily Morgan and Hugh Train deserve every accolade they get - all four are clearly tremendously talented.

Everything worked in this production's favour. Firstly, the setting. As a student theatre company there is arguably no better way to stage Educating Rita than by capitalising on the fact that it's a play set in a university, and Castle's MCR, both in its decor and in its connotations, is redolent of the dizzy heights of old-fashioned academia that Rita so craves to be initiated into. It was a very intelligent choice from Gauge, lending the production an increased feeling of realism that was coaxed along with beautiful subtlety by the fact that Train was already seated and intent on 'scholarly pursuits' when the audience entered the room. From that point onwards, the production never lost a sense of intimacy, even intrusion, which is so vital in ramping up the emotional punch inherent in receiving a snapshot into the lives of two damaged people, paddling like mad to stay afloat.

I knew that the setting would work in theory, but was consistently blown away by how it played out in practise - a particular favourite moment was Rita's innocuous remark about how much she likes the lawn outside Frank's office, a lawn which was visible not only to her, but to the audience too. In a traditional proscenium arch space, the audience only have their immediate surroundings to go on. In this production, there was a very strong sense of how Frank's office worked as part of a wider universe, which, in a play that is carried by only two people and which relies a lot on the reporting of prior events, worked wonders for the dynamics of the piece. I loved it.

Train and Morgan defy comment; they are, both together and separately, simply astonishing. Morgan in particular is a revelation. The production as a whole is incredibly nuanced and delicate and Morgan's characterisation of Rita is no exception: I loved the elements of vulnerability and childishness she brought to the character, particularly in her physicality. Her fidgety gestures and inability to sit still were a constant echo of someone who hasn't yet grown into her own skin and is fighting with a conception of herself that is almost entirely composed of what 'should' be. Morgan delivered Rita's more emotional scenes as chinks in a defensive armour - she was tense and poised and all the more poignant to watch because of it. Plus, it's not every actress whose comic timing is so flawless that they can make a room explode with laughter through the simple rattling of a door handle.

Train, matching Morgan perfectly, was quietly devastating in the few hints we get as to how much his life has spiralled out of control - I found myself being moved by certain lines in a visceral way that I had never experienced before. Where Morgan is angsty and energetic, Train embodies a world-weariness which is just perfect for a character whose self-loathing is no longer anger, more a reluctant but inevitable acceptance of the mess which surrounds him. It is tempting to portray Frank as a series of pithy one-liners and clipped dismissal but Gauge's direction and Train's formidable stage talent has created a characterisation, which is bittersweet, lovable, and at times simply desperately sad. I want to sympathise with Frank and to feel sorry for him - and Train makes this very easy.

This review simply cannot do justice to Raving Mask's production of Educating Rita. For all my raptures, it is a production which must be seen to be believed. Not only that, but that DESERVES to be seen. I am overjoyed to been able to see my favourite play performed and produced with such consummate skill and want to congratulate everyone involved in creating such a stunning piece of theatre. 

6 December 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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