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THEATRE: 31 MAY 2015

By SANDRA BOWDEN

Educating Rita, by Willy Russell | Directed by Mark Kilmurry

Ensemble Theatre | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli | Until 28 June

I remember listening to Marianne Faithfull sing The Ballad of Lucy Jordan in 1979 and feeling incredibly saddened. At the time I was 16, so of course I also thought that by the age of 37 your life was pretty much over — and so that if you hadn’t ridden through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in your hair by then, you may as well give up on the idea.

Then along came a hairdresser called Rita; a few years later, a housewife named Shirley Valentine. And it started to become apparent to me that change, and choice, didn’t need to have a use-by date.

Despite Ensemble Theatre’s latest production of Educating Rita being billed as an updated version, there really are no surprises in Willy Russell’s tale of a discontented hairdresser seeking knowledge — and that’s perfectly okay. At a time when so many productions are (successfully) reimagining well-known pieces — changing the era, gender, or setting — it’s actually refreshing to revisit a beloved play pretty much as one would expect.

Rita (Catherine McGraffin) bursts into burnt-out academic Frank’s (Mark Kilmurry) musty, book-filled office intent on bettering herself through an Open University literature course. Her forthright, enthusiastic desire to “know everything” chips away at Frank’s jaded viewpoint even while he seeks to self-destruct via his alphabetised liquor cabinet.

An intensive two-hander, Educating Rita requires excellent timing, chemistry and a steady build of drama alongside the humour. While this production ticks the first two boxes beautifully, the more serious aspects of this exploration of potential and self-discovery don’t quite reach the climax they could.

Director Kilmurry stepped into the role of Frank following the departure of Mark Lee — always a daunting task, but ably handled by this seasoned performer. Kilmurry’s Frank comes across as largely affable oddity, the scrambling for bottles hidden in the bookcases more charming than pathetic — at first. However, as Frank starts to feel Rita outgrowing him, his increased desperation and helplessness is palpable.

McGraffin is a flawless Rita — earnest, delightfully blunt, a true breath of fresh air in Frank’s stuffy and staid world. Nick Curnow as dialect coach has obviously worked long and hard with McGraffin to master the North England accent, and it’s paid off.

Some 35 years on, Rita remains an uplifting message of hope and possibility. It makes me wish Lucy Jordan could have seen it.

Catherine McGraffin and Mark Kilmurry in Educating Rita. Images: Clare Hawley.