Educating Rita in Eastbourne: two people with lots to learn

A lot of people will know Educating Rita just from the film. But as Stephen Tompkinson says, the play is a much richer.

Monday, 27th January 2020, 4:00 pm
Updated Monday, 27th January 2020, 4:05 pm
Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita. Photo by Robert Day

Stephen is Frank alongside Jessica Johnson as Rita as the show continues its 40th anniversary tour at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, with dates from February 17-22.

Tickets cost £20-£28.50 (concessions available). Call 01323 412000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.

When married hairdresser Rita enrols on a university course to expand her horizons, little does she realise where the journey will take her. Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker who’s less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on, but the two soon realise how much they have to teach each other.

“With the play, as opposed to the film,” Stephen says, “you have got just the two actors and just the one set and you have got the whole focus on the interdependent relationship they have got with each other.”

That intensity is precious: “As lovely as it is being in front of a camera, you can find yourself jumping from scene three to scene 73, but on the stage with this, we have got this beautifully piece written by Willy Russell and you go all the way through. You have got a beginning, a middle and an end.

“And the great thing is that it is a proper shared experience with the audience who tell us where the laughs are. You expect laughs with comedy and you know that a lot of it is funny, but the audience are the missing element if you like. The audience tell you where to speed it up and slow it down, and it is different every night.

“We did 18 weeks on tour with it last year, and we went all over the place. I think we finished in August. But it is funny when you know you are going to get a second go at something, your brain manages to retain a lot. Our director Max and I did a play in Newcastle and then we got to transfer to London, and Max said it was like going back to a boeuf bourguignonne the next day and discovering that it tastes even better.”

And the great thing was that last time they had Willy Russell with them for every week of rehearsals: “It was beautiful. He talks about what things were like when he originally wrote it and how things have changed so much and how audiences have become so much more savvy with their expectations and with the internet.”

Frank is a fascinating character: “He is a little bit lost when you first see him. He has a failed marriage and he is a failed poet, and he is drinking very heavily. His office is like miniature library, but behind the books he is putting little bottles of Scotch. He is a bit jaded. He does not really enjoy answering questions in the simplistic way where there is no room for individualism, and he is a bit ground down. He is forced to take on these extracurricular courses to meet his drinking bills.

“And into this walks Rita…”

And he is torn. He is drawn to her natural inquisitiveness but doesn’t want to take it away from her: “He doesn’t want to mould it into something formulaic. It is a lovely piece, and it is joyous to be working with such brilliant writing. I would not have changed this for the world.”

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