Forty years on, Educating Rita proves a timeless classic

Educating Rita, starring Stephen Tompkinon as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita, which is now showin

Educating Rita, starring Stephen Tompkinon as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita, which is now showing at Norwich Theatre Royal. - Credit: Archant

It might be 40 years since Willy Russell wrote his hit play Educating Rita, but this heart-warming comedy has weathered the decades and the latest production to come to Norwich Theatre Royal proves it is now a timeless classic.

Jessica Johnson plays Susan Rita White, the Liverpudlian hairdresser who hopes to improve her lot in life through the Open University.

Her counterpart is crotchety tutor Frank, played by well-known television star Stephen Tompkinson, who increasingly seeks solace in a bottle of whisky to deal with his own disillusionment with academia and the disappointment of his frustrated career as a poet.

Playwright Russell was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Educating Rita, bringing in scenes with extra characters who are only mentioned in the stage version.

But even for avid fans of the well-known film, there's something wonderful about seeing this story stripped back to its original form and distilled into a two-man production focusing solely on the interactions between student and lecturer in his university office.

Some of the best-known lines from the film appear, but they are brilliantly delivered and still have the power to amuse, and there are plenty of laughs from the sparky dialogue.

Tompkinson has spoken about how the role of the cantankerous Frank was a part he had always wanted to play, but previously he had felt too young. It was only when he crossed paths with Johnson and she said he would make an amazing Frank that the 53-year-old realised he was now the right age to step into Michael Caine's big shoes.

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And both actors do a fine job of taking on the much-loved characters made famous by Caine and Julie Walters on the silver screen, making them their own.

Johnson gives a vivacious performance as a Rita who can barely sit still at times because she is so fizzing with energy.

And Tompkinson's Frank is chaotic and likeable, despite his alcoholism and cynical view of life.

There's a reason this play won an Olivier award when it first debuted in London's West End. And with Russell himself heavily involved through the rehearsal process, this production is a fine successor.

Educating Rita is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, June 15. Tickets are available from