WILLY RUSSELL SEASON
EDUCATING RITA and SHIRLEY VALENTINE
Trafalgar Studios (Studio 1) Whitehall To 30 October 2010.
7.30pm 20, 31 July, 2-7, 9-14, 28, 30-31 Aug, 1-4, 13-18, 27-30 Sept, 1, 2, 11-16, 25-30 Oct.
3.30pm 31 July, 5, 7, 19, 21. 26 Aug, 9, 11, 23, 25 Sept, 7, 9, 21, 23 Oct.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
28, 29 July, 16-21, 23-27 Aug, 6-11, 20-25 Sept, 4-9, 18-23 Oct.
3.30pm 12, 14, 28 Aug, 2, 4, 16, 18, 30 Sept, 2, 14, 16, 28, 30 Oct.
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 871 7632.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 26 July (Shirley Valentine); 27 July (Educating Rita).
Speaking up in the Mersey sound.
It’s only taken these productions three months to cross from Southwark’s highly successful Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End. But it was nearly a quarter-century after Shirley Valentine was first seen at Liverpool’s Everyman theatre (Educating Rita was a Royal Shakespeare Company premiere six years before) that someone had the bright idea of pairing them – the brightest of its sort since Jonathan Church programmed Rita in repertoire with David Mamet’s Oleanna at Salisbury’s Salberg Studio.
Both plays show a woman reaching out to a new life, with a name change: Rita’s a temporary invention while Shirley shrugs off her married name, a point resounding triumphantly in the final line. Rita is intellectually voracious while Shirley has a general appetite for life. Shirley tells the story her way; her tough decisions are made off-stage, while Rita has to contend with the downbeat pessimism of Open University tutor Frank.
Rita was created, famously, by Julie Walters, and onstage ever since she’s been the main character. She is here – Frank’s usually looking at her, while it take a lot of learning and expressing herself before she starts looking towards him. But by casting Tim Pigott-Smith Jeremy Sams’ production ensures Frank’s no also-ran.
There can’t have been many publicity shots that less accurately represent how the characters appear onstage than the images for this Season. Yet in giving Pigott-Smith the evening-suited look of a Professor Higgins (a role he played a few years back) the link’s made between Rita’s later scenes and Shaw’s Pygmalion – though Frank’s an ineffectual autocrat, and regrets any loss of individuality in his student, she realises, like Eliza Doolittle, that she now has choices. It’s that spirit that gives the play – as it does in different form Shirley – its optimism. Not fashionable stuff in the West End, maybe, but given the tautness of these productions, it earns its place.
There are moments in Shirley that director Glen Walford lets Meera Syal have comic impersonations of characters that create laugh-outloud moments rare elsewhere. But that’s right. Walford knows Liverpool – she had a glorious period running the Everyman in the eighties, including the first Shirley Valentine – and it’s not just several local references early on that would get louder laughter on the home turf. The Everyman’s location mixes the University and some difficult estates. There will be more Ritas and Shirleys there than in London. Or at least, London’s Ritas and Shirleys aren’t likely to be much among West End audiences.
Shirley’s in trouble if the right food isn’t on the table at the right moment – Syal describes this well; though perhaps she shows an awareness of independence too early – Rita gets hassle from a husband who’s tailored her life to his limited ideas. Both are brave women; and Rita’s bravery’s only increased in contrast to Frank’s downward spiral.
In other words, what Russell’s done is suggest an answer, for the less liberated ends of modern society, to the question Ibsen posed when Nora Helmer banged the door on her doll’s house. Though other questions remain the steps these women have triumphantly taken are giant ones, aided by a following wind of Merseyside wit.
Famous and fine as Syal and Pigott-Smith are, it’s Laura Dos Santos as Rita whose charting of her character’s progress is truly impressive. From the short skirts of her hairdresser days to the sophisticated full-length outfits when studying literature has taken over, she moves from sparky uncertainty, body and hands fidgeting as she seeks to express ideas, nervous but with the determination to find a way to where she wants to be, energetic but not yet having learned how to sustain an idea – Dos Santos is the picture of a lively mind without the discipline of formal education.
Later she can look back reflectively on this time. And while even these performers can’t quite disguise the problem area of the pair’s later quarrel (where the focus on Rita weakens and moves less successfully towards Frank), Pigott-Smith’s unsentimentality and Dos Santos’ forthright Rita show how the younger, stronger of the two can help sustain the supposed teacher.
Shirley Valentine holds the stage well, while this, of all, Ritas is not to be missed.
Rita: Laura Dos Santos.
Frank: Tim Pigott-Smith.
Director: Jeremy Sams.
Shirley: Meera Syal.
Director: Glen Walford.
Designer: Peter McKintosh.
Lighting: Paul Anderson.
Sound: David Ogilvy.
Hair: Linda McKnight.
Costume Associate: Siân Jenkins.