Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 8 April, 2010
**** / ****

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita reviews itself, really. Not in the sense of being critic-proof, nor yet manipulative. Rather, many a reviewer’s stance towards the play – and also his Shirley Valentine, both revived in repertoire at the fashionable Menier Chocolate Factory – will implicitly mirror the attitudes of lecturer Frank as he encounters Scouse hairdresser Rita, dead set on self-improvement through an Open University degree. Russell’s plays, we will say: ah, they have a refreshing directness, a naïve insightfulness... and then, like Frank when Rita grows more knowledgeable, we will lament the disappearance of that initial feisty fizz. We may also remark that Russell as a playwright, like Frank as a poet, has produced little or nothing substantial for some years now, and may even be tempted to use the word “quaint” about these works from the 1980s. We will, in short, patronise the bejaysus out of both plays and playwright.
Russell can probably live with that. His Blood Brothers is the West End’s longest running musical after Phantom and Les Mis, and since Rita premièred in 1980 it has never been out of production somewhere in the world. This is all because his writing chimes with ordinary people... and I mean that not in a condescending way, but in that we are all ordinary people. These twin portraits of women finding themselves – 42-year-old housewife Shirley on her first holiday abroad in Greece, and 29-year-old Rita through her literature course – continue to work, not despite truisms such as Shirley’s musing “Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and thoughts if they can’t be used?”, but because of them. Russell is unashamed of sentimentality, but he knows that its power lies in its honesty. It’s also grimly interesting to see, up to 30 years on, how un-quaint these tales are in terms of working-class women’s autonomy: neither the hostility of each woman’s offstage partner nor Frank’s covert Pygmalion syndrome seem at all dated.
Meera Syal’s Shirley simply gabs affably at us, occasionally directing a remark to the wall of her Liverpool home or a rock on the Greek beach for variety. Her hand gestures are on the expansive side, but this is after all a solo show, and this trait comes into its own when a more Mediterranean demonstrativeness is warranted. Syal and her director Glen Walford ring some nicely subtle changes, letting us see each step on her journey to self-rediscovery as it emerges from the banality and daftness of her life hitherto. As Rita, Laura Dos Santos is similarly friendly, without being as brash as Julie Walters in the film version. This is a distinctly human Rita. A human Frank, too: under Jeremy Sams’ direction, Larry Lamb is always friendly towards Rita, never spiky, even suppressing behind smiles his unease and resentment at her growing intellectual assurance.
Frank also remarks, “In criticism there is no place for the subjective”... but he later acknowledges his error. Subjectively, then, I say that I like these shows, and that I think they speak to all of us.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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