Esk Valley Theatre

Glaisdale, near Whitby, North Yorkshire, UK


'Educating Rita'
By Willy Russell

Production shot
Amy Spencer as Rita and Ian Crowe as Frank
© Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media

The Review Hub
Reviewer: Ron Simpson, September 2016

Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Stratton
Set and Lighting: Graham Kirk
Costumes: Christine Wall

Esk Valley Theatre is one of the more unusual success stories in British theatre. Every August, Mark Stratton and Sheila Carter take over the Robinson Institute in the moors village of Glaisdale. Graham Kirk brings in his considerable construction skills to transform a village hall into an intimate 102-seat theatre with excellent sight-lines and acoustics and all is set for a long run of one play. This year, the excellence of the production of Educating Rita and the tiny number of unsold seats, tick the two main boxes for theatrical success.

Educating Rita is well suited to the Esk Valley Theatre. A two-hander with one very self-contained set - a splendidly claustrophobic study with looming bookshelves - it actually benefits from the wing-less Robinson stage, with the door, the key to much comedy and some drama, firmly in view in the centre of the back wall.

Willy Russell's original play is enjoying a spate of revivals - this is the second in Yorkshire in a few months and, though the more expansive film is better known, audiences clearly enjoy the original pared down version. The play follows a simple structure. University tutor Frank takes on an Open University student, Rita, bright, intelligent and intuitive, but uneducated and unable, at first, to separate emotional response from analysis. In a series of short scenes he tries, with increasing success, to instil an academic attitude in her; their rather messy private lives get an airing; she develops confidence; he perhaps resents her increased independence - and his own dependence on alcohol, there from the start, becomes more obvious. The interval coincides with Rita's successful summer school and after that the dual process accelerates, she moving away from dependence on her mentor, he losing his hand-hold on respectability.

Russell pursues such themes as the actual value of an academic education and the civilising effect of literature, but the essence of the play is the ambiguous and shifting relationship between Frank and Rita - and it is here that Mark Stratton's direct and thoughtful production is particularly strong. Under his direction, Amy Spencer avoids the pitfall of making Rita a lovably daffy Scouse ingnue. That way there are plenty of laughs in the opening scenes, but the development is harder to believe. Spencers Rita acts her age (she is 29, young, but not a kid), gets her laughs without going over the top and carries complete conviction in her transformation. Ian Crowe is an articulate and, initially, controlled Frank; it is easy to believe that he is holding down a respectable post despite the whisky bottles behind the great authors on his shelves. He gets through the difficult collapsing drunk scene with a modicum of conviction and is increasingly affecting in the late scenes as his life unravels.

Rita's constantly changing costumes (design Christine Wall) are a reliable and sometimes entertaining road map to her social condition, self-confidence, aspirations, and pretensions. And, while Amy Spencer's changing, the inter-scene bursts of music are cleverly chosen: a burst of Grieg to go with Rita's famous essay on Peer Gynt, for instance.

Whitby Gazette
Reviewer: Emily Thwaite, 17 Aug 2016

IMMEDIATELY, on seeing this stage set, we know we are in a university study. Images of books are revealed through the open shelves where larger-than-life books conceal bottles of drink. A bin overflows with dirty clothes, implying Frank (Ian Crowe), the university teacher, spends a lot of time here. Rita (Amy Spencer), his Open University student, sees the room as a "lovely mess", a phrase elevated by Frank with the word "patina".

Language is explored wonderfully and class is a central theme - Rita, seen as "charming and delightful" by Frank, does not want to play the court jester. In the course of her transformation to being educated, she becomes proud of being able to tell the difference between Oscar Wilde and Kim Wilde.

But is something being lost? Rita has to abandon her uniqueness to write acceptable literary criticism and pass exams. Frank sees her as his project in a way, as well as being obviously attracted to her. The music in this production, including Grieg's Peer Gynt, cleverly reflects the tone of the scenes.

Rita's clothes, designed by Christine Wall, track the changes Š from a brassy working class outfit, through a long skirt and dreamcatcher from summer school to bright confident red at the end. There were tears in my eyes as Rita and Frank are about to part company - she is ready to "sing a better song" and Frank has helped her get there.

Director Mark Stratton ensures another Esk Valley Theatre production passes all possible audience tests with flying colours.

The Press
Reviewer: Charles Hutchinson, 1 September 2016

WILLY Russell's 2015 revamp of Educating Rita has been drawing full houses to Glaisdale, so much so that your reviewer had to squeeze into the last seat in the house, back row, by the window, on Tuesday night.

As ever with Esk Valley Theatre director Mark Stratton - soon to be seen with a luxuriant moustache in Northern Broadides' When We Are Married at York Theatre Royal - his choice of production has been spot-on.

Production costs for this small-scale moorland company are always tight, so what better than a two-hander with a top-quality cast, backed up by a set design by Graham Kirk with a wallpaper of pile upon pile of books behind a university lecturer's shabby study, where bottles of booze are hidden behind more books.

Christine Wall has done a sterling job with the costumes too: standard The History Man jacket and trousers for Ian Crowe's alcoholic, cynical English Lit lecturer Frank and an ever-changing wardrobe for Amy Spencer's Scouse hairdresser Rita as she progresses and changes through her Open University studies.

Russell's revamp is not a case of Re-educating Rita, so much as stripping out the 1980s references in favour of bringing out the universal truths in his story of an embittered, stagnating poet and lecturer being challenged by the bright spark of a 29-year-old working-class woman, a breath of fresh air amid the frustratingly linear world of academia.

Holderness Gazette
Reviewer: Judy Adcock, September 2016

One of the joys of reviewing theatre in the summer months is to travel over the North Yorkshire Moors to Esk Valley Theatre in Glaisdale. This year the drive has once again been a pleasurable experience with snoozing sheep on the road and time to admire the magnificent purple heather now in full bloom. On a beautiful summer evening perfect timing is required to reach the theatre for this yearÕs production of Educating Rita. How encouraging to see the 'House Full' sign at the door and producer Sheila Carter welcoming patrons in to the theatre.

Willy Russell's play first opened at the RSC in 1980 and was made into a film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, winning many awards along the way. The story is best remembered as a two hander written by the playwright who had experienced both sides of the education system. When Willy Russell left school without any qualifications his mother suggested that he become a hair dresser. This he did until he was twenty. Becoming increasingly obsessed with writing he then decided to take exams and go to college, eventually becoming a teacher.

Frank, played by Ian Crowe is a university lecturer meeting his Open University student for the first time in his book filled study. Rita, played by Amy Spencer is a Liverpudlian hairdresser in her early twenties wanting to better herself by studying literature. Their first meeting does not go down well as Frank has misgivings about Rita's ability to adapt to the student culture and they both talk about calling the lectures off. Rita's technical ability for the literary subject is limited by her lack of educational skills but eventually Frank finds her enthusiasm refreshing. There are some complications along the way as Rita is married and her husband expects her to stay at home and have a family while Frank has his drinking habits to contend with as well as his live in lover. Rita and Frank take time to adjust to each other becoming stronger characters with a solid chemistry between the two actors on stage. Rita eventually makes Frank face up to his drinking habits and his personal life bringing back a feeling of enjoyment in his life.

Under the astute direction of Mark Stratton the two characters from different worlds collide and become kindred spirits. Their character development is marked with humour and enthusiasm taking the audience on a journey of discovery. Rita's costume changes reflect her changing character from tarty to smarty and Graham Kirk's set design fits perfectly with the small stage and hundred seater auditorium.

The journey over the moors was well worth it as not only do I applaud the two wonderful actors and director but the huge army of volunteers who help to make the theatre possible each year. It is a truly rural theatrical experience.