I find it easy to relate to Rita. Willy Russell’s heroine of Educating fame may have a scouse accent as thick as Mersey fog but in all other respects we are two peas in a pod. Working class post war baby, desperately seeking culture and an escape from mind numbing council estate values. Harold Wilson’s Open University opened up a world of opportunity for the aesthetically deprived and Rita eagerly grabs it with large hands and an even larger mouth. She may have come to Chekhov and Ibsen later than I did but she gorges on it like a child in a sweetshop. Russell’s famous play is good because his monster of a mouthpiece for the changing times is a comic creation of the highest order and her tutor, Frank, an intricate fragile foil on which to bounce the narrative and drive the conflict. Get the chemistry right and it is a play that zings.
That this version from Wheathampstead almost totally succeeded owes much to the brilliant portrayal of Rita from Sarah Brindley. You believed in this woman from the moment she entered the book strewn tutorial room. Desperate to learn and sharp as a Liverpool razor, this Rita grabbed you by the throat and never let go. Scene by scene Miss Brindley created an offstage life that was both bleak and unfulfilled. You could almost see the unfeeling husband, the dreary hairdresser clients, the pathetic mother yearning for a better song. Beautifully judged, quiet reflective moments interspersed with coruscating one liners, this Rita tickled the fancies and stilled the heart. All is directed at Frank, the tutor consumed with his own quiet desperation and fraying at the edges. Alcohol is both his prop and his curse. Malcolm Hobbs could not match Miss Brindley in the acting stakes, his controlled character needed a hint of greater disintegration for that, but it was a carefully observed and measured performance. His was the firm ground on which Rita danced. A bit too firm perhaps, except in a highly comic drunken scene, but one that held your attention.
For the cultural snobs amongst you, Rita was Galatea to Frank’s Pygmalion. For those who know theatre and Willy Russell, she was Breezeblock Park’s Sandra writ large. But whatever Rita was, she and her Frank made for an absorbing evening. Individual acting merits aside, you believed in them both. Pretty important that, as plays with only two characters can be enormously difficult. Not that I know, I have never done one.
But I reckon director Steve Leadbetter quietly considers himself fortunate to have a pairing that had clearly worked their socks off. His packaging will improve as he gets more directorial experience, unfocussed sound and hasty and confused lighting changes displeased, but his first shot at it was a bloody sight better than mine. But however many plays he directs he will rarely get an individual performance as consummate as the one delivered by Sarah Brindley. This Rita roared. Roy Hall