by Willy Russell.

Minerva Theatre Oaklands Park PO19 6AP To 25 July 2015.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat & 1, 9, 15, 22 July 2.45pm.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.

TICKETS: 01243 781312.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 23 June.

Hymn to education and a vivacious woman who never wears the same dress twice but always sparkles.
It was Chichester’s Artistic Director Jonathan Church who first coupled Willy Russell’s comedy with David Mamet’s university-set two-hander Oleanna in 1996, when he ran Salisbury Playhouse. Now, programming Michael Buffong’s revival in the Minerva allows us to see the serious side of Rita.

Understandably so. Lectureships are no longer safe jobs for life, while Rita moves easily between jobs in a city on the verge, we now know, of mass unemployment and strife. And this Rita asserts its Liverpool identity in every syllable Lashana Lynch utters – and might come, during the run, to utter with less reliance on an excitable high vocal register.

But she incarnates Rita as a life-force, instinctively optimistic, and gives the jokes a firm character base. One of the best is about Peer Gynt, which is referred to recurrently. Yet a different Ibsen play comes thematically to mind. Like Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Rita realises her life’s been planned for her by others.

Lynch’s Rita smashes out of her doll’s-house existence, turning dissatisfaction with her mundane breezeblock-park existence into joy at realising she can make choices, becoming a constructive version of Dennis Cain in Russell’s One for the Road (which he revised shortly after writing Rita).

Though Literature lecturer Frank, with his pre-packed middle-age dissolution, drinking and failed relationships, compares himself to Frankenstein, a scene where Rita pulls her chair closer to his desk and tries-out a ghastly Liverpool posh-speak relates the action to Bernard Shaw’s famous “not bloody likely” drawing-room scene from Pygmalion.

And Buffong’s production shows, on Shavian lines, the consequence of educating Rita. The once uncoordinated intelligence focuses and becomes independent of the teacher.

Buffong also provides space to see the major advance in Rita’s essay-writing comes from the unseen summer school rather than Frank’s tutorials – where her changing dress-sense is more evidently displayed.

One tutorial unwound for the actor on press night. Lenny Henry handled the problem with great dignity (as did Lynch), left the stage briefly, then returned to give an altogether more lively performance, what had been a competent picture of disillusion becoming infused with palpable emotion.

Frank: Lenny Henry.
Rita: Lashana Lynch.

Director: Michael Buffong.
Designer: Ellen Cairns.
Lighting: Johanna Town.
Sound: Jack C Arnold.
Voice/Dialect coach: Charmian Hoare.

2015-06-24 12:13:25

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