I’m on a massive countdown now until the summer. I just can’t wait. I’m so exhausted. I’m also a bit down about my reading. I either can’t get into books or I fall asleep. It’s frustrating me immensely! However, I have had a little treat recently, and that is to revisit Educating Rita. I’d kind of forgotten just how magical this play is. Then, my school for free trinkets to see this at Hull Truck which was equally awesome. (More on that later!)
The play focuses on two characters, Rita, a working-class woman in her twenties from Liverpool and Frank, a late middle-aged professor at a university. The play begins with Rita arriving at Frank’s office. She’s there to be tutored after deciding to return to education to pass her exams. At the start, Frank is on the phone with Julia, his younger live in girlfriend. He claims he will be going to the pub on the way home. This becomes a prominent image in the play.
“Life is such a rich and frantic whirl that I need the drink to help me step delicately through it.”
Like a whirlwind, Rita enters bold and brash but utterly charming. She focuses her attention onto a nude painting on the wall that Frank claims to never look at anymore. She jokes with him and gives her opinions on various matters without holding back. Frank is amused and intrigued by her. He offers her a drink, revealing numerous bottles as the play progresses behind a number of books.
“But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’? Know like I’m doin’…tryin’ to do. Do you think I will? Think I’ll be able to do it.”
Frank presses Rita to know why she is there. She wants to learn everything, much to Frank’s surprise. She is hungry to learn and tired of everyone around her. Her job as a hairdresser, where she has to listen to mundane chat every day is bringing her down. She teases Frank about needing a haircut, but he disagrees.
Rita is naturally inquisitive. She starts to ask him questions like what assonance means. She tells him her real name is actually Susan, but she prefers to be known as Rita after the author of her favourite book, Rubyfruit Jungle, which she repeatedly presses him to read.
Rita reveals how she wants to improve herself, but her husband Denny does not understand why she wants to do this. Frank agrees to teach her but informs her of how he is openly disillusioned with education. He tells her that once he is done telling her she should go and not come back. Eventually, he tries to get rid of her, but she pursues him as her tutor.
Rita continues to come for her lessons and Frank has usually been drinking. Frank enquires about her experiences at school when she was younger. It is quite disheartening. People fought, argued and didn’t know any better. No one ever paid attention and anyone who wanted to learn was automatically an outsider. She went along with everyone else but started to wonder if she was missing something.
“See if I’d started takin’ school seriously then I would have had to become different from my mates; an’ that’s not allowed.”
Attention then focuses onto a written response from Rita about her favourite book, Rubyfruit Jungle. Frank criticises her work for being too subjective with no literary criticism. Rita struggles with the concept of criticising something she likes. Discussion then moves onto a Forster book Frank had mentioned previously. She hated it! One thing she does learn though is that Frank wrote poetry. She pushes him to see some but he refuses.
The more their conversations develop, the closer Rita and Frank become. Frank’s negativity towards the world is more and more apparently. He claims this would not be the case if Julia were more like Rita, but Rita just laughs these comments off.
The tone seems to change in Act three because Rita rushes in, apologising for being late. It was because of a very talkative customer. Frank doesn’t seem annoyed about this, rather her answer on the staging of Peter Gynt seems to infuriate him. Rita admits it’s quite short and reveals to Frank a growing conflict at home regarding Denny and her education. Therefore, she has to write her essays at work. Discussion changes to culture, with Rita saying the working class has no culture. Frank tries to say they do, but Rita’s questioning making him realise that maybe she is right.
Their next meeting is quite frosty as Frank is annoyed that Rita hasn’t got her essay. He eases when he realises that Denny has burnt all of her books and notes because he was mad at her for not taking the contraceptive pill and for going back to school. Rita explains his reasoning for it, how he feels betrayed and how they already have choices in their lives. Yet, Rita knows they don’t. Rita decides that they need to have fun and go to the theatre. Frank joins her, despite it being an amateur production. Rita’s love for the theatre grows as she boasts about seeing a Shakespeare play.
“But it’s not takin’ the place of life, it’s providing’ me with life. He wants to take life away from me; he wants me to stop rockin’ the coffin, that’s all.”
Frank invites Rita to a dinner party Julia is giving; Rita agrees but she doesn’t turn up. She later reveals to Frank that Denny did not want her to go and she felt nervous and underdressed. She obsessed about bringing the wrong wine. Frank tries to explain how none of that matters and she just needed to be her charming self, but Rita is offended. She wasn’t going to provide the ‘banter’ for anyone.
“…I don’t wanna spend the night takin’ the piss, comin’ on with the funnies because that’s the only way I can get into the conversation. I didn’t want to come to your house just to play the court jester.”
At the next meeting, Rita comes in upset with a bag of her belongings. She tells of how her and Denny have split up and she is going to live with her mother. She begs Frank to keep on teaching her, to change her. She refuses to give up, despite Frank telling her she is fine. He gives in and does as Rita asks.
Over time, Rita becomes more and more like the other students. She gets herself a new flat mate, a new job at a bistro and makes new friends. She also starts to speak without her trademark Liverpudlian accent. On the other hand, Frank is drinking more, troubles with Julia remain and is saddened by the changes he sees in Rita.
“I have merely decided to talk properly. As Trish says there is not a lot of point in discussing beautiful literature in an ugly voice.”
Things take a turn for the worst when Rita next arrives as Frank is frantically packing his books. He tells of how the university suggested he take a sabbatical because of his drinking. Rita tries to sympathise with him, but his attitude and negativity towards her exam paper make her angry. She yells at him saying he told her to be objective and to do her research, which she has done. She claims he does not want her to have her own thoughts. But, their fight fizzles out when he says he read and enjoyed Rubyfruit Jungle.
Their meetings start to dwindle because of Rita’s busy schedule. Frank is drinking even more and seems somewhat jealous of Rita’s new friends, in particular a young student called Tyson. He and Rita are fighting more, but he does sign her up for her exam. After the exam Rita returns and tells him she wanted to write something sarcastic, but she ended up writing a thoughtful answer. She admits she is still learning about life, but that Frank was a good teacher. Frank doesn’t believe her. He is depressed and getting ready to go to Australia without Julia.
There is a pause and Rita says she has something to give him. The play concludes with Rita sitting him down, taking out her scissors to give him a haircut.
“I never thought there was anything’ I could give you. But there is. Come here, Frank…”
This play really is cracking. It showcases the beauty of education and what it can do to people. It also shows the power of friendship; Rita and Frank need each other. This play naturally appeals to the educator in me, but it works on other levels. Who doesn’t want to better themselves?! The production at Hull Truck Theatre was also brilliant. It is a play you have to see.