Theatre Review: Educating Rita provides its own educational experience (Performances at Sydney’s Depot Theatre until 20 May)

The Depot Theatre’s staging of Educating Rita is particularly timely for students studying HSC English; the opportunity to see a required text performed live should never be overlooked. For this reason, I encourage all parents and their teens to get out and see this play. This production has great heart, and it’s wonderful to see a modern classic staged in such an intimate space. But it doesn’t quite hit the heights of some of The Depot Theatre’s other productions.

Educating Rita was penned by multi-award winning English playwright, Willy Russell, back in 1980. In it, we meet Rita, a 26 year-old hairdresser who desires a high-class education, and Frank, the alcoholic university lecturer who deigns to become her tutor (mostly for the money, so he can buy more booze). Despite their differences, they have much to teach each other about art, literature and what it means to be educated.

The play takes place over a number of months but remains set in the same room – Frank’s office – which has been expertly conjured by set designer, David Jeffrey. Two ceiling-high bookshelves hug the walls, dressed thoughtfully with aged books and quirky collectibles. In front of the shelves sit appropriately dated, scholarly furniture pieces, festooned with papers, files, the most exquisitely perfect set of coffee mugs and still more books. A carpeted floor and glass-windowed door complete the picture; there is no doubt as to the purpose of the room – this is an educator’s office.

Director, Julie Baz, has handled the transitions between the scenes well, using Rita’s costume changes to indicate the passage of time. During these moments of relative stillness, Frank’s actions are accompanied by atmospheric lighting states, designed by Mehran Mortezaei, and a wonderful musical soundtrack, written by Tim Linghaus. All these production elements combine to create a beautiful backdrop for the action.

For a two-hander, this play covers a lot of ground. Which makes for a terrific effort on the part of the actors to carry the action forward without losing momentum or energy. Both Emily McGowan (Rita) and David Jeffrey (Frank) deliver on this element of the piece, if at times perhaps moving a little too quickly through the scenes.

In the titular role, McGowan gives a strong performance. She brings a bubbly flightiness to the character, as though she is poised to leave the room at any time. This effect is heightened by the fact she rarely puts down her handbag, hanging it from her arm as she continually paces the small room. But the character also has a burning desire for acceptance, which McGowan brings forth with a no-nonsense confidence and ever-present smile. She should also receive much praise for her excellent quick-change timing.

But with just two actors to carry an entire play, a slight miss-step in a performance can throw the whole piece off-balance. And this is where things go slightly awry for this production. Jeffrey is an accomplished actor, but his take on Frank is a bit too animated. I believe Russell intended there to be a significant contrast between an energetic and enthusiastic pupil, and a beaten-down, know-it-all drunk. In his performance, Jeffrey displays all the right gestures to imply the visage of a pompous university lecturer, a class above his low student, but his early delivery is not quite as convincing. And given the direction the character is headed, a softer, more world-weary starting point would have added more impact to Frank’s transformative journey.

The absence of a snarky, disdainful teacher means laughs are also a little hard to come by, despite this being a comedy. That said, McGowan’s clown-car of a pencil case provides some much needed levity, and she plays the moment perfectly.

Baz is that wonderful kind of director for whom no detail is too small to be unpacked, analysed and interrogated. Her staging is a great example of this, and keen eyes will see how she reflects the character’s growth throughout their encounters. But while every decision is deliberate, not all of them deliver as they should. For example, despite the attention to detail that has been given to setting the piece in its original time-period, Baz made the creative choice not to require English accents of her actors. Baz says she made the decision to emphasise the universality of the play and its themes. It’s a juxtaposition that doesn’t quite work, though, especially because the text is so heavily littered with English references and phrasing. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting choice.

Early on in the play, Frank tells Rita that sentiment has no place in criticism. Which is perhaps why I found this review difficult to write. I admit to having a deep fondness for The Depot Theatre (and all small, independent theatre companies, for that matter) and so find myself wanting desperately for them to succeed in all their endeavours.  As a showcase of what you can do with a small place and a great text, Educating Rita is educational for both students studying the work and those looking to expand their theatrical horizons. Unfortunately, though, this latest production by The Depot Theatre just misses the mark – but not for want of talent or trying.

Educating Rita is playing at The Depot Theatre until 20th May. For tickets, head here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 12th May.

Photo credit Katy Green Loughrey