There is no mistaking which play we are in for. The shabby-chic study of the academic is an uncurtained extension of the auditorium, the audience sitting in its unsettled cosiness from the start. The believable room stirs memories of colleges, schools and going to see the Head, and one can almost smell the books, fustiness, whisky and unwashed jumpers of Frank, the shambling lecturer in English literature who spends most of his time in the room, and the rest in the pub. Bringing a breath of much-needed fresh air is Rita, a hairdresser determined to find something better in life and desperate to know what clever people know about books.
I was particularly interested in the casting of Matthew Kelly as Frank and Claire Sweeney as Rita, as in the past both have made me sit up and take notice. Having seen him only on cringe-factor game shows I had no idea that Kelly was even a trained actor until some years ago when for the first time I saw him in a serious role in television’s Cold Blood and realised I had misjudged him totally. I first came across Claire Sweeney the one and only time I forced myself through Celebrity Big Brother, where she got my attention for remaining not only sane and sanguine but genuinely pleasant and humorous throughout - a marvel which gained my awestruck admiration.
Unfortunately this very sanguinity was what, for me, prevented Sweeney from being a convincing Rita. Within moments of her entering, I felt a sort of dismay, and was willing her to be more animated. One somehow felt that, although Rita states she is nervous, it was actually Sweeney who was. When she moved, one felt it was because the Director had told her to rather than because it came from within. Some of Rita’s priceless Willy Russell lines did not get the laughs they should, whereas a poignantly serious line, when Rita discloses that her husband Denny has burned her essay, brought forth a loud laugh, proof that somehow the right notes were not being hit.
This is not to say that Sweeney’s performance was poor or unenjoyable. It was an able performance, and playing Rita is a tall order for any able actress, given the play’s familiarity, the limited confines of the unchanging set, and the inevitable comparisons with Julie Walters’ screen portrayal. But Rita’s terrier-like passion, obsession and fire were never quite there, the body language never quite spontaneous or sparkling enough.
Kelly, with his large body and large features, cardigan with holes and leather elbow patches, made an admirable Frank, and steered the production with great professionalism. Director Tamara Harvey had done a good job, getting the pace and timing so vital to Educating Rita exactly right, and the gradual reversal of roles, from Rita needing Frank to Frank needing Rita, was managed excellently. By the end of Act 1 there was a real feeling of passion developing in both characters. Kelly’s portrayal of Frank’s slow decline from confident but cynical lecturer to life-questioning alcoholic was disturbing, and when he delivered the classic line “Pissed? I was glorious!” he looked disconcertingly like Oliver Reed on the Michael Aspel show.
Needing to be axed was the unconvincing projected tree through the window and sudden heavy-handed recording of In the Bleak Midwinter, surplus to requirements as there are ample clues in the script, props and clothing to denote the changing seasons.
All in all, an enjoyable evening, but the real star remains Willy Russell, whose masterful script is a perfection of wordsmithery that Rita and Frank could only dream of attaining.
Educating Rita is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre Mon 2 - Sat 7 July 2012