Arriving at the Minack theatre, I am more than thrilled to be back at a live performance, but less than sure that this particular play will work here. Educating Rita is set in a northern, redbrick university – specifically, in the stuffy office of an English lecturer-cum-erstwhile minor poet. This open-air amphitheatre clings to a Cornish cliffside, a wide, blue horizon stretches beyond its wind-scoured stage.
Isn’t Willy Russell’s 1980 hit comedy better suited to a venue such as Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, where this production opened last year, under Max Roberts’s direction? The contrast between this site and the fiction is as great as… well, as the contrast between the erudite, irascible Frank and his new, eager mature student, Rita, a hairdresser with no qualifications enthusiastically embarking on an Open University course.
Enter Frank: long, wispy hair, lashing across his face, hinders his search for the whisky bottle hidden on his bookshelves. Frantically fluttering papers threaten to fly from his desk; he grabs at glass weights to hold them down. Rita blows in, makes to take off her coat: a gust almost rips it from her back. Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson respond deftly to such unpredictabilities, cleverly adapting them to their characterisations.
Tompkinson uses the wind’s buffetings to intensify our impression that Frank is flailing desperately to take control of his job, his love life and his drinking; that, as a poet, he is trapped under the weight of his own defeated expectations. Taking a tight grip on her coat, Johnson guides it along the air current and loops it firmly on to a hook, her gesture emphasising Rita’s determination not to be dictated to by circumstances, to take charge of her life.
A gull swoops over the stage just as Rita is telling Frank that Chekhov’s The Seagull is a “dead sad” play. Before us, two people are making choices that limit or expand their horizons. This is, after all, a most appropriate setting.
The Minack was built on the 1930s dream of Rowena Cade. Chester’s Grosvenor Park theatre, which opened in 2010, is the dreamchild of Andrew Bentley and Alex Clifton and forerunner of the more permanent Storyhouse arts centre. The dreams of all three were realised because they connect with our aeons-old shared longing for the particular experience that is live performance – a magic merging of people, place and presentation. And Clifton’s pared-down production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is shaped for an audience long deprived of conviviality by lockdown, a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term (miraculously, rehearsed over just four days).
An eight-strong cast brings a boisterous energy to the series of increasingly frenetic situations of mistaken identity set off by the arrival in Ephesus of Antipholus and his servant, Dromio. Unknown to them – or to anyone else – the city is home to each of their long-lost, identical siblings, also master and servant and also called Antipholus and Dromio. Making no pretence at a fourth wall, the performers share everything directly with the happily involved spectators, only concealing, until the final scene, the secret of the uncanny resemblances between the twin-pair actors. Great fun.
Although Educating Rita comes to the end of its run at the Minack today, producer David Pugh is aiming to take the production on a 40th anniversary tour. For updates, check here.
Star ratings (out of five)
Educating Rita ★★★★
The Comedy of Errors ★★★★