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Educating Rita at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Updated on May 23, 2012
4 stars for 'Educating Rita' at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Claire Sweeney as Rita and Matthew Kelly as Frank in 'Educating Rita' at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Claire Sweeney as Rita and Matthew Kelly as Frank in 'Educating Rita' at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford | Source

Starring Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney
Showing until 26th May 2012

Review by Fiona Lister

Presented by Chocolate Factory Productions and Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita couldn’t have hit the stage at a better time. The modern day Pygmalian story about a Liverpudlian hairdresser and her tutor is proving a smash hit over at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

Directed by Tamara Harvey, Educating Rita has burst onto the Yvonne Arnaud’s stage in a blaze of glory and is playing to a full-house each night. Starring Claire Sweeney as Rita and Matthew Kelly as Dr. Frank Bryant, Educating Rita demonstrates that nothing should prevent anyone from finding fulfilment in life, however hard the journey is. Rita provides a beacon of hope for all those who feel trapped in their current situations and want to break free and take risks.

Willy Russell is an award-winning Liverpudlian playwright, dramatist, lyricist and composer who writes from the heart. Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine are dearly loved works which are continuously reprised - all of them have won Laurence Oliver Awards. Willy Russell grew up in Liverpool where he started as a ladies' hairdresser, running his own salon before becoming a writer.

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Educating Rita premièred on 10th June, 1980, at The Warehouse, London. The production starred Julie Walters (Rita) and Mark Kingston (Dr. Frank Bryant). Many of us remember the 1983 film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Everyone sat in front of their television screens fascinated by the ‘Pygmalian’ relationship between the young Liverpudlian hairdresser and the hard-drinking middle-aged university lecturer. Since then there have been numerous revivals and the story appeals to all generations and social classes. Educating Rita ran at the Menier Chocolate Factory from 26 March - 8 May 2010, as part of the Willy Russell season. The production transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End from 8 July - 30 October 2010, produced by Sonia Friedman, starring Laura Dos Santos and Tim Pigott-Smith.

Educating Rita is the story of a working-class Liverpudlian hairdresser who decides to change her life, takes a chance and seeks enlightenment through signing up for an Open University course in English Literature. Rita is unafraid of losing the familiar to start again – even when ignorant husband Denny throws her out of their house when he discovers she’s still on the pill.

Claire Sweeney is extremely well cast as Rita, putting her own stamp on this loveable role. I went to the theatre wondering whether I would be able to see this production without thinking of Julie Walters in the 1980s film. After the first fifteen minutes I was drawn straight into the story and was stunned by the strong characterisation. Wearing an ‘eighties batwing jumper, leggings and legwarmers, Liverpool born Claire Sweeney morphs effortlessly into the role. The only thing missing are the white stilettos and a frizzy perm (de rigueur in the ‘80s era of the New Romantics – a time when everyone went to discos and listened to Soft Cell, the Human League and drank Snakebites and Pernod and Black). Costume Supervisor Brigid Guy and Wardrobe Martin De Cerjat look like they’ve had fun with this production! Ms Sweeney already has a natural Liverpulian accent and dynamic stage presence; she tints hairdresser Rita’s personality with a tenacious, brassy colour, presenting her as gobby and unashamedly direct. There’s a hilarious moment when she misinterprets the title of “Howards End” - E.M. Forster’s classic novel, leaving her heaped in laughter. What is most striking about Claire Sweeney’s performance is her ability to change Rita throughout the story. Rita’s character blossoms thanks to her friendship with drunken tutor Frank and from the knowledge and opportunities deriving from that friendship. The old Rita is not left behind, but Dr. Frank Bryant misses the young woman who first walked into his dusty old office. There are some wonderful dynamics between Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney, particularly towards the end; comedy turns to drunken panic when he realises they will be parted. Just as Rita’s taste for education grows, her character flowers until she becomes a more thoughtful Rita with a craving for travel, theatre and other opportunities. Much to the horror of her professor, she gives up cigarettes. Claire Sweeney’s exceptional performance is hardly surprising, given her diverse stage and television credentials, most notably as Lindsey Corkhill in Brookside in 1991; Roxie Hart in Chicago; Miss Adelaide opposite Patrick Swayze in Guys and Dolls; Paulette in the UK tour of the Legally Blonde and the 2011 production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s one-woman show Tell Me on a Sunday.

I last watched Matthew Kelly on stage in the exotic 1930s Cleveland Comedy Musical Lend Me A Tenor which ran at the Gielgud Theatre. Kelly is a fantastic character actor who possesses impeccable comic timing. He shines in the role of Frank. Right from the outset, Matthew Kelly resembles a hard-drinking professor alone in his dusty office amongst books and bottles of Scotch. He makes his way to the bookshelves, carefully searching behind books for secreted bottles of booze. Kelly’s white beard, dishevelled hair and grandfatherly cardigans matched with brown cords give him the air of a dissatisfied soul who drifts like a ghost from one lecture to another. Rita enters Frank’s life, and his lonely world changes, only for him to crash back down to earth in the second half of the play, at the realisation that education will free her from everything, including from him. He asks attractive Rita why on earth she couldn’t have entered into his life twenty-five years ago. Cue more booze. I found the dynamics between Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney much more believable in Act II. There are some wonderful moments when we see Frank getting decidedly tipsy whilst Rita is away for the holidays. Just as Rita’s thirst for knowledge and education grows, his thirst for alcohol consumes him. Nevertheless, there are moments in this script of profound tenderness matched with high comedy. When Rita sees him ready to pack crates with his books and leave for Australia she asks him whether or not he’s been sacked to which he responds: “No, for dismissal it would have to be nothing less than buggering the Bursar.”

Matthew Kelly is a tremendous actor and his performance as Frank is Kelly at his best. Matthew Kelly has won numerous awards, including winning a Royal Television Society Award for Best Performer in a Drama and a Silver Medal in the New York International Programming Awards - both of these were for Cold Blood. Kelly won his Olivier Best Actor Award for his role as Lennie in Birmingham Rep’s Of Mice and Men. Kelly has a string of television and theatre credits to his name, having appeared in anything from Shakespearean roles to acting in plays written by Samuel Beckett, Alan Bennett and Alan Ayckbourn.

Claire Sweeney and Matthew Kelly are on stage together continuously for the entire play. The dialogue is fast, the story is punchy and sincere and the characters are loveable. Tamara Harvey’s direction together with Assistant Director Olly Hawes is superb. The direction is not overstated, since there are just two characters on stage throughout, and has been carefully balanced. Too much direction could look overdone – instead, it focuses on mannerisms and body language. Most importantly, there is emphasis on relationship dynamics.

The clever set consisting of bookcases, a door to the office and a window with a tree outside gives the impression of an Oxford University setting. Everything in this production from the set Design by Tim Shortall, Set Construction (RK Resource) and Props (Jemma Gardner) is beautifully worked into this production. I particularly loved the dismal grey filing cabinets and old fashioned radio and telephone – touches from a bygone era before the digital age. The set works particularly well on the Yvonne Arnaud’s stage – a larger theatre could swamp the intimate storyline. The Lighting Design by Paul Anderson with Lighting Equipment provided by Sparks Theatrical Hire and Sound Design (Davy Ogilvy) with Sound Equipment from Blitz, is again carefully balanced, creating harmony to the overall production. The sound and music work well leading from scene to scene, adding definition to the storyline.

Educating Rita is a play that all generations can relate to. We’ve all been in situations where we want to change our lives and reach for something else – and the credit-crunch should not prevent this, even if the journey takes longer. Rita makes those changes; she challenges psychological boundaries by ripping away restrictive blocks and relationships, even when it means losing the familiarity of her old life. Rita shows that you can start again and there are always possibilities in life. Life isn’t about getting a university grant or having fees paid for or using anyone as an excuse not to try something new. This play is one of choices and the route taken to find a better life, however hard. Rita isn’t just a heroine for hairdressers, secretaries and workers of every kind who feel trapped – the ballsy Scouser is inspiration for anyone wanting to change their lives. Above all Educating Rita is highly entertaining. It’s a show that everyone will love. Tickets are affordable and exceptional value for money, so the whole family can enjoy the show. Don’t miss this charming production now running at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until Saturday 26th March, 2012.

Tickets can be booked online via the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre's website:

Box Office:01483 44 00 00 01483 44 00 00


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    • MellowDayLondon profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from South Africa

      Yes, sure is Matthew Kelly from 'Stars in Their Eyes'.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Is that the same Matthew Kelly who used to do Stars in their Eyes- it certainly looks like him. I saw the cinematic version of Educating Rita and it was very good. It sounds as if this production is just as good. Thanks very much.


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