Willy Russell’s iconic Educating Rita comes to Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre
PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 April 2017
The narrative concept of a young working-class girl seeking the wisdom of an older, intellectual male, with both learning vital lessons about life and love, is a familiar one on the stage and screen.
My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is an obvious example, beloved since its triumphant 1956 Broadway opening and Audrey Hepburn’s iconic performance, as is Educating Rita, the heartwarming tale of a professor and a gobby hairdresser which catapulted Julie Walters into the limelight in the 1980s.
Willy Russell’s play, and the screen adaptation, have charmed audiences ever since, and a new production at Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre is set to be a highlight of its spring season.
Danielle Flett and Ruairi Conaghan star in the play, running from April 22 to May 13, with both performing at the Billet Lane venue for the first time.
The Recorder caught up with the pair to discover their thoughts on stepping into some iconic pairs of shoes.
“It’s such a joy to be playing Rita,” said Danielle, 27. “She’s such a famous character and so I’m very excited.
“She’s just a force and so strong, I feel very lucky to be playing her.”
“It’s a wonderful play,” added 50-year-old Ruairi. “It’s really enjoyable to explore the characters, it goes into much more depth than the film.”
Educating Rita is the brainchild of playwright Willy Russell, whose other work includes Blood Brothers and Our Day Out.
Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it premiered at London’s The Warehouse in summer 1980, with Walters reprising her role in the 1983 Bafta-winning film, for which Michael Caine came on board as professor Frank Bryant.
Frank is an Open University academic, disillusioned, often seeking solace in the bottle, whose world is turned upside down by the arrival of vivacious 26-year-old Rita, who hopes education can propel her out of her unfulfilling life.
Rita’s influence rekindles Frank’s love for literature, and the pair embark on a surprising, and moving, journey, which leaves both of them changed.
“I actually saw the film for the first time when I was at school and fell in love with Julie Walters and Rita,” said Danielle.
“Rita and Frank are in two different worlds, she’s never met anyone like him.”
The play offers a more intimate experience than the film, as Rita and Frank command the stage alone, in his study. This means the actors, who were in their third week of rehearsals at the time of the interview, really will be kept on their toes for two hours.
“There’s so many lines,” laughed Ruairi. “When you get to my age that becomes a real challenge.”
“I think it’s always a challenge,” added Danielle. “I’m not finding it any easier. It’s a hell of a lot of lines, but we’ll get there.”
The Queen’s version, directed by Rosalind Philips, is still set in the 1980s, but the setting has been moved from Liverpool to Essex, with some small changes in dialogue nodding to that.
Just as Rita’s experiences echo those of Russell – who left school at 15 with one O-level before returning to education and becoming a teacher – so do they resonate with Danielle.
“I’ve had a very similar upbringing to Rita,” she said. “I didn’t have a good education, didn’t go to a very good school, so a lot of it rings true.
“But at the same time it’s the ‘80s, it was very different then. She’s 26 and married, it’s about getting married, having a baby and going to work, and she wants to break out of that. She’s a massive female role model.”
“Young people crave an opportunity to be educated and particularly if they are from the working classes, can struggle because that isn’t provided for them,” added Ruairi. “So I think the play is very relevant today.”
Educating Rita runs at Queen’s Theatre from April 22 to May 13. Ticket prices range from £12.50 to £19 for previews, and £18 to £29 for other dates.
Visit queens-theatre.co.uk or call 01708 443333.