There are a handful of tales from the last few decades that belong to British culture so much their very titles are shorthand for the stuff we care about. Shirley Valentine was one, Educating Rita another. Everyone knows the Oscar-winning film which made Julie Walters into a world star, so when it was programmed by the Garrick Rep Company I wondered whether it might not be cooking your cabbage twice to revive the original stage play.
I needn’t have worried. The result is a triumph, and the programming now seems inspired. Because this isn’t just Rita’s story. Somehow it’s the story of the empowerment of people in post-war Britain via a revolution in education which opened up opportunities previously reserved only for the well-born.
Tupele Dorgu, well-known to Corrie fans as feisty Kelly Crabtree seizes the role of the unsophisticated Rita and gives it a shake until the very theatre rattles. In her extremely capable hands Rita’s experience scoops the audience up and whirls them along with her on a journey of joyous self-discovery.
Judging by the audience on the night I went this play appeals very strongly to the ladies, but there’s plenty for us chaps too. Garrick Rep actor-in-residence Tom Roberts is marvellous as ex-poet and burnt-out academic Frank whose world-weariness is so challenged by Rita’s hunger for learning and the hurdles she has to clear to get it that he too is forced out of his comfort zone and has to move on.
Gareth Tudor Price’s direction reveals that Willy Russell’s original play is a modern masterpiece. The spontaneous applause after each beautifully-crafted scene said this more than any words can. Add in John Brookings subtly realistic set and the excellent production values all round and you have a seamless hit that can’t be faulted. Definitely not to be missed.
Educating Rita by Willy Russell runs in the Garrick Studio until June 22 including Saturday matinees. For tickets phone the box office on 01543 412121 or go online at www.lichfieldgarrick.com.