One small step for Rita and Frank at Royal & Derngate

We all know the story of Educating Rita, in part due to Michael Caine and Julie Walter’s performances in the 1983 award winning film of the same name. Willy Russell`s play is now forty one years old, but it shows no sign of ageing, in fact its more relevant today than it has ever been!

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank & Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

It had been seventeen months since I last sat and watched a live theatre production, the superb Carol King Musical, `Beautiful` and it felt so, so good to be back! Rita was in many ways the perfect post – Covid play. It is a play for two actors set entirely within the office of an Open University tutor! Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson are in a real life partnership off stage, so there was no need for the couple to stay the regulatory `two metres` from each other. There was no need for stage hands to enter stage either to move anything around the set, the two actors would from time to time move chairs or tea chests, so any other contact remained limited.

Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

At first I was surprised to see Stephen Tompkinson enter stage, with so much hair! He was hardly recognisable from the actor I had watched in Yasmina Reza`s play `Art` at the same theatre a couple of years ago. The show was ninety minutes long, without an interval and the seating was not social – distanced, the wearing of face masks was optional, e-ticketing was in operation, which I am sure will become the norm and there was no paper magazine programme available. The capacity of the theatre had been reduced to about a quarter, most of the audience seated in the lower galleries from what I could see. I was pre-warned that due to the increased ventilation across the theatre it would be much cooler, but I sat in shirt sleeves throughout the show and it was very comfortable.

Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

Rita is frustrated with the routine of her work and social life and is looking to `find herself` by attending an Open University course in English Literature. The play opens as ‘Rita’ meets her tutor, Frank, for the first time, who is less than enthusiastic about teaching her. Frank is a middle-aged, alcoholic academic who has only taken on the tuition to pay for his drink. A professor in his mid-fifties Frank used to be a little-known but well-respected poet, but he stopped writing when his wife left him. He started drinking heavily and now doubts the value of his role as an educator, describing himself as an “appalling teacher.” He no longer enjoys his job and dislikes students even more but he starts to see Rita as a“breath of fresh air” but feels Rita deserves someone much better than himself.

I know what he’s thinkin’; he’s wonderin’ where the girl he married has gone to.

Rita talking about her husband Denny

Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

Frank soon finds that his passion for literature is reignited by Rita, who may have lacked  a formal education, but whose enthusiasm Frank finds refreshing. It is Rita`s fresh and honest approach to literature that impresses Frank so much. The two make an instant and deep impression on one another. Frank is fascinated by Susan’s energy and sincerity, which prompts him to reconsider his own feelings and position in life. Susan knows that Frank’s teaching will open doors for her to an alternative life and increases her new found self-confidence. However, Frank’s indignation and sarcasm returns to threaten their friendship as he notices Susan beginning to adopt the charades of the university culture he so much despises.

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank Jessica Johnson as Rita ©Nobby Clark

“People I work with, live with, grew up with—us, we’ve got no culture.”


This is one of many lines given to Rita in which she laments the intellectual shallowness of the social class in which she has been raised. Rita`s wardrobe reflects the changes as she goes from being a frustrated hairdresser, who is looking to transform her life, to the self – confident and assured Susan. Both actors appear to grow into their parts as their stories unfolded.


In the play’s final scene, Rita finds Frank packing up his belongings. Because of his excessive drunkenness, the university is forcing him to take a sabbatical in Australia. When Frank asks Rita if she would like to go to Australia with him, she delicately sidesteps the question as it signals Frank’s romantic attraction for Rita, which is unanswered. His often unspoken feelings for Rita are often bubbling below the surface of the play.

Oh, Rita! Why didn’t you walk in here twenty years ago? 

Frank signals his romantic attraction for Rita

As Frank begins to fill up the tea chests with his books, how many bottles were hiding behind them? Rita thanks him for signing her up for her exams and tells him he’s a good teacher and gives him a heartfelt cuddle. It is a touching moment; Rita is a sensitive and charming character study of two lost souls from two very different worlds who come together and find a common need in one another. It is light comedy with romantic brushstrokes that manages to be both appealing, moving, and emotional.

Class, social change, and education are the main themes of the play, but the play’s genius is the interaction between Frank and Rita, the teacher and student. The relationship between the two central characters at opposite ends of the social spectrum makes for some entertaining comedy situations. I loved it!

You can hardly bear to spend a moment here, can you? 

Frank worries that Rita no longer depends on him for guidance.

Educating Rita is funny, expressive, sentimental, touching, and sad, as Frank must come to terms with his young student, no longer dependent or needing his influence any longer, whilst Rita is beginning to spread her wings and has realised what she is now becoming and is confident of her true potential.

I’m gonna take ten years off you. 

The final line of the play as Rita is preparing to cut Frank’s hair. 
Stephen Tompkinson as Frank ©Nobby Clark

Rita is preparing to cut Frank’s hair. This final line of Educating Rita ends the play on a touching and humorous note. An excellent evening’s entertainment and one I had been looking forward to for a very, very long time. If you have seen the film and enjoyed that, you will love this wonderful adaptation of the play. Not to be missed! A triumph for us all!

Willy Russell’s  Award – Winning EDUCATING RITA


Continues at Royal & Derngate, Northampton until Saturday 31st July 2021