Taking a cue from last year’s successful Centaur Theatre production of Willy Russell’s crowd pleasing Shirley Valentine, The Segal Centre at the Saidye has countered with an invigorating production of the author’s one other popular play, Educating Rita.
In a word, the two hander character study that runs until Dec. 13, is a joy. It’s the Pygmalion tale of a gritty working-class hair dresser from Liverpool (Carly Street) who, in spite of her husband’s objections, decides to improve herself by going back to school. Her real name is Susan, but she thinks Rita is more refined so she adopts the name of her favourite author, the lesbian feminist mystery writer, Rita Mae Brown. As Rita, she enrolls in an Open University course taught by Frank Bryant, (Ric Reid,) a down-at-the-heels, alcoholic English professor.
Street, with her tight mini-skirted walk, heaping hair-do, and brassy eagerness to “learn everything,” is sensational. Whether she’s chiding Frank with wide-eyed irritating honesty, or parroting the plummy tones of the British upper crust Street is delightfully vivacious. Reid is superbly measured as the rumpled world-weary failed poet who stashes his booze behind the books. Not an actor to be easily upstaged, Reid proves to be equally riveting. As a matter of fact, you don’t see either of them act, you are swept along by their honest perception of the roles. In one especially touching moment, Rita explains why she declines invitation to dine with his friends for fear of being laughed at. It helps to be literate to enjoy the show. There are delicious puns on the gay English novelist E. M. Forster, (‘Forced her to do what?’) allusions to poet William Bulter Yeats, and references to William Blake and Shakespeare. Is that Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet that Rita is quoting?
As the play progresses the pair become dependent on each other; Rita acquires a growing sense of her own identity and self worth and when their student-teacher relationship ends, through her Frank regains his faith in himself. It’s a bittersweet sociological study that flirts with class differences, romantic yearning, and grudging admiration.
Director Kash, who originated the role of Rita in Canada at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre in 1983,and has played it several times since, knows the nuances of the script inside out. She has directed with affection and with assured, scenic mobility.
What makes the Segal production so satisfying is how well matched the two actors are, and how they have found the chemistry to make the play their very own. They are so good they allow an audience to forget the movie version with Michael Caine and Julie Walters. Arguably, the play, when well done, is better than the movie version that was ‘opened up’ to include a number of peripheral characters. The Segal’s version has been rewritten; references that were topical 30 years ago in the original script have been cut, lines have been added, and some scenes updated.
John Dinning’s elaborate set, which is nicely lit by Spike Lyne, doesn’t serve the play very well. It is not merely a professor’s cluttered office, but a sprawling Tudor mansion complete with turrets and symmetrical walled gardens on either side that draws attention to itself. His costumes, on the other hand, are spot on, and with each change mirror Rita’s evolving maturity.
It’s one of those shows that deserves a longer run.