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Educating Rita review at Hull Truck – ‘lithe and poetic’

Simon Armstrong and Taj Atwal in Educating Rita at Hull Truck Theatre.
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Great stacks of books dominate James Turner’s set. They bulge from the shelves and the piles heaped above the door frame makes you fear for whomever dares to enter. It’s a fitting metaphor for how Rita is about to have her life shaken up in Hull Truck’s revival of Willy Russell’s play – a little learning can be a head-turning thing.

Mark Babych’s production of Educating Rita is lithe and leanly-muscled. In the mouths of the two leads, Simon Armstrong and Taj Atwal, the words flow like poetry. A lot of work has gone into getting the rhythms of the speech right – lecturer Frank’s exacting turns of phrase and the Scouse inflections of his student Rita. They’ve been honed to the point where they feel completely natural; it’s as if we’re listening in on them.

As the destructive Frank, Armstrong keeps his character’s fears beneath the surface. There are points when, whether silently staring into space or sharply reacted to Rita after she tells him about the young students she’s been speaking with, we sense of the deep disappointments buried in him.

Rita brings joy back to his life. As played by Atwal, she is sparky and engaging, but her performance is more than just a humorous turn. We sense the sharpness of the character’s intelligence, the hopes that she holds that this course of study could change her life.

The themes of the play seem more pertinent now than ever, given the financial pressures involved in taking a degree. Babych nods to this with a brief snatch of a radio report – it sounds like the dulcet tones of John Humphries – about the strains universities face. It makes you wonder what Rita – and others like her – would do today.

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Smooth-flowing, poetic production of Willy Russell’s all too resonant play