A stuffy, old-fashioned study, with book-lined walls, comfy chairs, pot plants and the sound of classical music melodies, enchanted the intellectually insatiable Rita as she took the first step to educating herself.
The Bohemian lifestyle it encapsulated was her dream and she couldn’t get enough of it as she first explored the room where her Open University tutor, Frank, hid himself away.
And it is the magnificent set portraying this scene for Derby Theatre’s Educating Rita that instantly makes the show a winner.
Many of us have seen the 1983 film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, and a few of us can probably a couple thrown in of stage versions as well, so you need something a bit different to give it any wow factor.
Set and lighting designer Ciaran Bagnall achieved that by hanging tall, backlit windows and swinging bookcases from the rafters. At one point we had bucketsful of atmosphere added by water battering against the beautiful windows during a rain storm.
With Willy Russell’s play now being part of our collective consciousness it must be tricky for the two actors on stage to overcome the influence of their predecessors, so it probably helped that Jessica Baglow and David Birrell had worked together before.
There was a definite spark between them, which Baglow made the most of as she bounced around the stage with a glint in her eye, biting her lip to suppress Rita’s giggles.
I don’t think she will deny that they was a little of Walters in there somewhere, but Baglow did a great job of the accent and there was no doubting that she had just walked into the university off the back streets in an attempt to change her life. She played a very radiant Rita, inadvertently denouncing academic pretension on her way to a better life.
Birrell succeeded in giving us the self-pitying poet but somehow he didn’t seem to quite carry off the lecturer refreshed and infatuated by the verve of his young student before he succumbed to his cynicism as a sad old soak.
Director Elizabeth Newman has quite rightly not tinkered with the story or very lengthy text (more than 90 minutes in the first half) on the grounds that it still resonates with the education system today. We seem to have come full circle since the 80s and once again there will be Ritas out there who want more than life can offer them.
What has changed though, is that today’s students expect a lot more from their tutor for the thousands they are spending on fees each year.
The Franks of this world are becoming extinct and most 21st century lecturers, sharing an office space the size of a family bathroom, can only dream of such a stupendous study and light workload.
This play is worth going to see for the set alone – even if you have watched it before – but make sure you are prepared for a very long wait until the interval.
Educating Rita is a Derby Theatre and Octagon Theatre Bolton Production and can be seen at Derby until March 11. For ticket details go to http://www.derbytheatre.co.uk
You can see clips from the play in this video.