Educating Rita review – Willy Russell's Pygmalion story still broadens the mind

Octagon, Bolton
Jessica Baglow is radiant as the gobby but intellectually insatiable hairdresser who spars with her boozy Open University lecturer

If one thing has altered in the 37 years since Willy Russell wrote Educating Rita, it’s that students now hold their tutors accountable. These days it costs on average over £5,000 per year for the kind of Open University course that Russell’s intellectually insatiable hairdresser Rita embarks upon; and time and again you wonder what sort of value for money she’s getting, since her supervisor, Frank, is so patently a tenured waste of space. It’s no surprise that the governing body eventually packs him off on gardening leave in Australia; rather, you wonder what took them so long?

To his credit, David Birrell does manage to flip Frank’s alcoholic self-pity into a form of inverted heroism. Accused of falling off the rostrum mid-lecture, he retorts: “Yes, but I went down talking and I was still talking when I got up again.” And it is fascinating to see the spark of engagement that periodically lights up his eyes when he springs to his bookshelves and withdraws the volume concealing a bottle of Famous Grouse.

David Birrell in Educating Rita.
‘A seductively erudite alternative universe’ … David Birrell in Educating Rita. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

It’s not often that this modest two-hander offers much to look at, yet Elizabeth Newman’s joint production with Derby theatre has an imposing visual impact – the scuffed parquet, mullioned windows and cracked leather of Ciaran Bagnall’s set enables you to view academia the way Rita sees it, as a kind of seductively erudite alternative universe. And it quickly becomes a cosmos with Jessica Baglow’s radiant Rita at its centre. She has, to use a non-academic term, quite a gob on her; her Pygmalion-esque initiation to the world of critical theory and wholefood bistros is a wonder to behold.

•At Octagon theatre, Bolton, until 11 February. Box office: 01204 520661. Then at Derby theatre, 17 February-11 March. Box office: 01332 593939.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Shirley Valentine / Educating Rita | Theatre review

Menier, London
It's like one big girls' night out: warming, soothing and at times raucous and invigorating, writes Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

12, Apr, 2010 @8:30 PM

Article image
Educating Rita review – Willy Russell revival is a class act
Gemma Bodinetz’s astute production, starring Leanne Best and Con O’Neill, asks what happens when we confuse education with erudition

Alfred Hickling

16, Feb, 2015 @1:33 PM

Article image
Julie Walters and Willy Russell: how we made Educating Rita
Julie Walters: ‘I was so terrified on opening night, I was taking Valium backstage. I was shocked when people laughed’

Interviews by Laura Barnett

17, Feb, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
Educating Rita review – sharp-edged take on 1980s nostalgia piece
Willy Russell’s play works well in a socially-distanced staging, and the questions it asks about the value of arts and education feel more pertinent than ever

Arifa Akbar

30, Oct, 2020 @11:34 AM

Article image
Educating Rita returns to Liverpool stage
Revival of Willy Russell’s classic play will be centrepiece of spring 2015 season at Everyman & Playhouse theatres

Mark Brown

25, Nov, 2014 @6:23 PM

Article image
Shirley Valentine; Educating Rita | Theatre review
Meera Syal impresses in a Willy Russell double bill, says Kate Kellaway

Kate Kellaway

10, Apr, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
40th-anniversary Educating Rita to open at cliffside Cornwall theatre
Production starring Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson will resume at Minack theatre after coronavirus halted UK tour

Chris Wiegand

17, Jul, 2020 @8:51 PM

Article image
Educating Rita review – Lenny Henry walks off stage but returns with conviction
Despite stumbling over a line, Henry ended the evening looking totally assured in a Willy Russell revival that proves Lashana Lynch’s star potential

Michael Billington

24, Jun, 2015 @8:04 AM

Educating Rita | Theatre review
Trafalgar Studios, London
Tim Pigott-Smith has taken over in the role of Frank – and catches his self-loathing excellently, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

03, Aug, 2010 @9:30 PM

Article image
Educating Rita review – Lashana Lynch is ‘dazzlingly fresh’
Despite Lenny Henry’s first-night nerves, this Rita should graduate with distinction

Kate Kellaway

28, Jun, 2015 @7:00 AM