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Educating Rita review at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick – ‘a tightly directed revival’

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in Educating Rita at Theatre by the Lake. Photo: Robert Day Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in Educating Rita at Theatre by the Lake. Photo: Robert Day

It’s now 40 years since Willy Russell wrote his two-hander about a working-class Open University student finding herself through learning about literature. Like many classic plays, it can sometimes be pigeonholed as a period piece.

That’s not the case with Max Roberts’ production. It’s tightly directed and makes the most of the space. The timing throughout is spot-on. Jessica Johnson’s performance as Rita gets stronger as the play progresses. In the early scenes, her exuberance is sometimes a touch too stagey. It feels at times like a comic turn rather than a fully-rounded character. But in the later scenes, Rita is sharper and quieter, and Johnson’s performance becomes increasingly moving and engaging without losing any of the character’s enlivening wit.

Stephen Tompkinson gives a nicely observed performance as Rita’s alcoholic professor Frank. He’s a fluent, witty, self-important and often patronising talker but – more importantly – he’s also a consummate listener. The quality of his listening offers a glimpse of a Frank beneath the washed-up bore he initially appears to be. Rita instinctively tunes in to Frank’s potential just as he spots hers, and the play becomes about how they stick with each other.

Patrick Connellan’s set, a book-lined study with plenty of room for hiding Frank’s booze, is nicely detailed and features an era-appropriate telephone and radio, while the costumes convincingly place us at the start of the Thatcher years.

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Tightly directed revival of Willy Russell's still-enthralling play