Educating Rita review – Lashana Lynch is ‘dazzlingly fresh’

Minerva theatre, Chichester

Despite Lenny Henry’s first-night nerves, this Rita should graduate with distinction

In the Minerva’s Educating Rita, Rita is being educated in a chaotic study (designer: Ellen Cairns) where books are tipsily stashed, often not vertically – like a warning about what might be about to become of their owner. The Open University never had a more open student than Rita and Lashana Lynch is a knock out in the role – dazzlingly fresh. A hairdresser who will learn to split critical hairs with the best of them, her enthusiasm for bettering herself is contagious. She tells Russell’s gags with zest: “Does the phrase ‘only connect’ suggest that EM Forster was a frustrated electrician?” – and that is not even mentioning the fun there is to be had with “Howards End”.

Lenny Henry’s Frank is so successfully unprepossessing – a subdued old soak – that it is a strain to believe Rita could be in his thrall for a moment, let alone entertained or able to learn anything from him. And on the press night, as if taking his cue from his character, Henry became suddenly blotto, lost his lines and had to leave the stage. The house lights came up and there was a stunned moment (I cannot remember one as dramatic) in which one was reminded of just how hard the learning feat we take for granted in actors is.

Henry was rescued by Lynch’s gallantry and cool as she returned with a flourish but it would be untrue to pretend this was a non-event. You could not help but feel tense for Henry – though he courageously soldiered on to the end. What it did was weirdly to reinforce what was always clear from the start: Rita/Lashana has the upper hand. Fortunately, the show, directed with spirit by Michael Buffong, having survived this first night, is lively and amusing enough (as teachers like to say of their best pupils) to graduate with distinction.

• Educating Rita is the Minerva theatre, Chichester, until 25 July


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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