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Willy Russell on the 40th anniversary of one of his best-loved plays

PUBLISHED: 10:53 08 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:53 08 May 2019

Willy Russell Credit: Paul Cox

Willy Russell Credit: Paul Cox

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It is 40 years since award-winning playwright Willy Russell wrote Educating Rita - it remains one of his best loved works, regularly performed around the world.

Jessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in Educating Rita Credit: Robert DayJessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in Educating Rita Credit: Robert Day

Now in 2019 a major new production of the play is touring the UK, landing at Norwich Theatre Royal from June 10 to 15.

It stars Stephen Tompkinson as frustrated university professor Frank, opposite Jessica Johnson as Rita, his hairdresser student so desperate to learn.

For Willy 40 years on, it's a time for reflection on the success of his play.

"When will I ever be free of it?" he jokes. "It's coming up to its 40th anniversary would you believe?

"When it first opened, I remember saying to Mike [Ockrent] the original director, 'It's not actually got much stagecraft to it this, it's just a series of scenes'. So to still be talking about Educating Rita 40 years later reminds me of how gloriously wrong and stupid playwrights can be!"

Willy says he thinks of the play with great affection - not least because of the success of that original 1980 production at the Warehouse Theatre (now Donmar Warehouse) where Julie Walters first played the role of Rita opposite Mark Kingston as Frank.

He says: "The original production came together so well and I worked with people I really adored, Mike, Julie, Mark. Nobody had any big plans for this play, so when something happens so unexpectedly you always have a special regard for it because it came out of nowhere and suddenly made it."

The success of the play was followed by the hit 1983 movie starring Michael Caine and Walters reprising her role as Rita.

It won huge acclaim, winning BAFTAs and Golden Globes, and Oscar nominations.

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in Educating Rita Credit: Robert DayStephen Tompkinson as Frank in Educating Rita Credit: Robert Day

Willy recalls: "That's when everything kind of happened, everything went ballistic during that period. I was very fortunate to always have good strong women around me during that early success. I'm not one to lose touch with reality, but if I ever showed any signs of getting slightly wonderful I'd be cut down and put in my place, rightly so!"

The play tells the story of married hairdresser Rita who enrols on an Open University course to expand her horizons. But in her university tutor Frank she finds a frustrated but brilliant academic, a little too fond of a drink, who is initially less than enthusiastic to teach Rita. The two soon realise they have much to learn from each other.

Willy says: "There have been productions that have tried to set it in a contemporary setting, but the difference between education today and 1979 is so vast it doesn't do the play any favours to make it a contemporary tale.

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"People don't see education as a route to salvation in the way they did in the year this was written.

"The idea then of working class people returning to education was in the air, it was a new and vibrant thing, and the collision of those worlds, of the non-educated and the rather elite red brick university, was a massive collision, but all of that has gone now.

"The Franks of the education world today wouldn't have the luxury of being able to teach a girl outside of his curriculum who came to his office once a week. "Someone like Frank would be responsible for at least 300 students today. We're now so far away from 1979, that there's actually something kind of exotic about setting it in its own time.

"You can explore that world, design that world, costume that world and fortunately the universality of the play is exactly the same, someone's struggle to make life better is an ageless struggle, an ageless story."

The new production will see actress Jessica Johnson take on the role of Rita - after her acclaimed run in the role in Rebecca Frecknell's 2017 production at Durham's Gala Theatre. In that, she played the role with a North East accent - but she will be a Liverpudlian Rita to star opposite Tompkinson in the new production.

Jessica Johnson as Rita in Educating Rita Credit: Robert DayJessica Johnson as Rita in Educating Rita Credit: Robert Day

Willy is looking forward to see Stephen Tompkinson take on the role of Frank. "I've long admired him as an actor," he says.

"Frank is a role which has a humour to it but has a real pain as well. I can't think of anyone more equipped to delve into both of those elements than Stephen."

Willy, 71, is still based in his home city of Liverpool, so what kept him in his hometown all these years?

"Idleness, lack of ambition?" He jokes.

"Because of the job I do, even before digital communication, a writer didn't need to be at the centre of things.

"The issue as to why I left Liverpool never arose, my family are here, my friends are here. Had there been some reason to go somewhere else, I may have done it.

Educating Rita runs from Monday 10 to Saturday June 15 at 7.30pm and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets cost £10-£29.50.

You can book online at theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call 01603 630000

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