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Educating Rita review at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme – ‘totally absorbing’

Andrew Pollard as Frank and Lauryn Redding as Rita in a scene from Educating Rita. Andrew Pollard as Frank and Lauryn Redding as Rita in a scene from Educating Rita.
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Any preconceptions that this might simply be a tired rehash of an all-too-familiar play are quickly dispelled the moment our cast of two begin their verbal fisticuffs, in this engaging co-production between the New Vic and The Dukes, Lancaster. Willy Russell’s classic two-hander may be decades old but this latest offering feels as fresh as a newly-achieved honour from the Open University.

Careful casting has paired two excellent players in the roles of desperate-to-learn hairdresser turned OU student Rita (Lauryn Redding), the role made famous by Julie Walters in the 1983 film, and New Vic stalwart Andrew Pollard as her tortured tutor, Frank.

Pollard’s performance is a sheer delight, with every syllable of his lengthy dialogue clearly audible, no matter where in the round he faces. The same cannot always be said of his co-star, but her generally brilliant portrayal of the feisty Scouser is positively mesmerising.

With its countless books, partially carpeted wooden flooring, piles of exam papers and a huge desk, Jessica Worrall’s single set perfectly encapsulates Frank’s stuffy world of academia from which hidden bottles of whisky provide increasing relief.

Rita and Frank argue relentlessly over literature, love, ambition and life in general, but under the crisp direction of Sarah Punshon, here their highly charged relationship never palls. And, through their body language, the pair manage to inject a will they, won’t they? element, even for those familiar with the play. With layers of pathos, humour and high drama, their story is totally absorbing from start to finish.

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A delightful revival of Willy Russell’s  classic tale.