Facing each other across the Irish Sea, Belfast and Liverpool are two cities with much in common, not least the salty vernacular and black humour of their natives and the determination of their working class communities to carve out a better deal for themselves. These elements form the cornerstones of Willy Russell’s celebrated play, Educating Rita, the setting for which has been transposed, in collaboration with the writer, from 1980s Liverpool to 1980s Belfast, a city at the epicentre of long-running political turmoil, where the spectre of the hunger strikes hovers ominously on the horizon.
Emma Jordan, directing with characteristically quiet ferocity, has largely opted to establish time and place with a soundtrack of atmospheric songs by the likes of Van Morrison, David Bowie and Bob Dylan. When short bursts of news broadcasts pop up, they register as somewhat surplus to requirements.
Hairdresser Rita and university lecturer Frank encapsulate opposite ends of the social spectrum during those dark days – she from a besieged community where education is not a priority, he a disillusioned veteran of privileged academia.
Stuart Marshall’s book-encrusted set transforms Frank’s study into an intimidating, cavernous lair, waiting to gobble up Kerri Quinn’s tough, wise-cracking Rita, whose desperate quest for self-improvement presents him with a monumental challenge. Far from being fuelled by flirtation, their partnership develops into an increasingly tense battle of wills, in which Michael James Ford’s nicely played-down, booze-sodden complacency initially rides roughshod over his pupil’s gauche ignorance, but gets its comeuppance when she turns the tables with some invaluable life lessons.