|Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney
Educating Rita, produced by the Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Bath, is a delightful re-working of Willy Russell’s clever study of character and emotion, liberally sprinkled with humour and delicious irony.
Claire Sweeney plays the title role of the married hairdresser who at 31 and already familiar with the poetry of Roger McGough, is hungry to broaden her cultural horizons via the Open University. Matthew Kelly plays Frank, a one time poet and now a local university tutor, assigned to supervise Rita’s studies.
Like fine wine, this play has improved with age. When first produced in 1980, the Thatcher era was established and the gap between rich and poor, acknowledged as a backdrop in much of Russell’s writing, was distinct. It is a sad reflection that many of today’s newspaper headlines echo similar themes, and that the play’s social comment is as relevant now as when it premiered . The original production and subsequent film, drew attention to the hitherto broadly unknown Julie Walters who had cut her acting teeth at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and who brimming with scouse grit, gave a performance as Rita that set the bar very high.
Claire Sweeney approaches the role from a distinctly different career path. Having already achieved numerous starring roles on television and stage Sweeney’s Rita, is an outstanding performance defining her as an actress with a depth of talent that reaches beyond musical theatre. Her broad Liverpool accent, not only authentic but deliciously emphasized, allows her to take Russell’s creation of the 80’s and subtly re-imagine the hairdresser to reflect our current early years of the 21st century. Rita’s arc sees her character grow not only in literary criticism, but also in self confidence. Sweeney’s performance ( amidst numerous immaculately timed costume changes ) charts this development in Rita with sensitivity and pinpoint perception.
Matthew Kelly provides a worthy foil to Sweeney’s comparatively youthful impetuousness. In his tutorial sessions with Rita he discovers that the protective layers of his alcoholic character’s crusty and cantankerous protective shell are first penetrated and then, almost onion-like, stripped away by this mature student’s directness of purpose and irresistibly innocent charm to reveal a vulnerable and lonely man. Without meaning to, Rita steals his heart, and when, in Act 2, we see his jealousy of her newly acquired freedom, Kelly’s performance tugs at the heartstrings without being mawkish. In a similar vein, his portrayal of Frank’s sometime drunkenness is also delivered free of cliché. It is interesting to note that Kelly and Sweeney briefly performed together earlier this year, albeit not as a duet, in the tour of Legally Blonde. The pair have an onstage chemistry that clearly works, and it will be intriguing to see if this professional pairing is exploited in productions of the future.