Educating Rita - performed October 1989

By Willy Russell

Performed with the kind permission of Samuel French

Director - Dennis Murfitt


(in order of appearance)

Frank Dennis Murfitt
Rita Alison Brett

Production Team

Jude Hussey, Jenny Rollings, Val Williams, Dennis Murfitt, Greg Garrad, Bruce Emeny, Maurice Barber, Val Taylor, Alison Brett, Gill Baxter, Patience Ling, Viv Wheatley, and other volunteers not mentioned.

The Play

Frank is a tutor of English in his fifties whose disillusioned outlook on life drives him to drink and bury himself in his books. Enter Rita. She is a forthright 26 year old hairdresser who is hungry for education. Rita quickly wins over the very reticent teacher by her native shrewdness and her refusal to accept secondhand academic opinions. In the course of the play she gives Frank a new lease on his life by making him believe in himself once again.


Educating Rita, the Manifest Theatre Group, Manifest Theatre, Manningtree, until Saturday Manifest members, I am sure, will forgive me for saying they would not be the same without Dennis Murfitt. Since the group was formed some 12 years ago, he has dominated all their productions, either as actor, producer, director, or all three, as in this particular production. So on learning the cast comprised just two people – one of the Dennis – I thought the other, who turned out to be Alison Brett, would be put in the shade. In the event, the opposite proved to be true. Alison, as Rita, dominated, growing in confidence and stature as the play progressed, although I have the feeling this was exactly what the wily Dennis intended

A member of the group had told me that with so limited a cast, I would have to fill out my review with descriptions of the scenery and costumes. This was rather a strange forecast since the scenery remained the same and the costumes altered only slightly. However, Rita must be commended for her quick changes between scenes. But the performers were enough. They were superb. On stage for two hours, they were word-perfect and Rita’s northern accent never faltered. Will Russell has the knack of writing from the woman’s point of view and Alison Brett captured this wonderfully. The story revolves around a young working-class woman seeking knowledge through literature.

As one who discovered the joys of Jane Austen’s novels at “O” level and the difficulties which come with such study, I was fascinated. Dennis has never let me forget that the first time I saw a Manifest production, I wrote that I was not keen on the theatre. Will, on Tuesday evening I was so engrossed I completely forgot to take a note of such mundane things like the number of scenes. I take it all back! I have been told reviews should include some criticism so I make two very small ones. The theatre was uncomfortably hot and in, I believe, the fourth scene, Rita’s fact, when she is sitting at a desk at the back of the stage, is obscured by the back of a chair!

Plays about education tend on the whole to be in the vein of The Happiest Days of Your Life or stage adaptations of St Trinian films with never a serious thought raising its head for a moment. Willy Russells’s enlightening two-in-hand however, whilst achingly funny, throws into very sharp focus the stifling effect of the formal, academic learning process and its crushing of true originality into time-hallowed set patterns.
The deceptively simple story of a developing relationship between a basically kindly but disillusioned Open University tutor and his bursting-to-know everything student, is spelt out in compelling fashion that sparks echoes of self-identification amongst its audience – and certainly did no this night! The fundamental flaw, however, was the decision of the director to play the male lead. It is given to few to be able to direct and act within the same production.

Dennis Murfitt’s fusty, dusty lecturer, blurring the heady memorise of a former minor poet with a steady intake of alcohol, was competent enough. But the fact that he could not stand back for his conceived stage pictures meant that there were occasions when the positioning of seemingly immovable furniture obscured important climaxes in the duologue that runs through the action. The discussion about Peer Gynt for instance, lost most of its impact because Rita was lost behind a tall chair back and an Angle-poise lamp.
Such a pity, where there was a first-rate performance for Alison Brett as the gutsy, bright-as-a-button Liverpudlian determined to “better” herself, a highly-coloured characterisation – with make-up to match – that pushed right up to the very limits of personality and projection, yet was capable of moments of gentleness and stillness, caught all the longing and almost desperate yearning quite beautifully.
This must set a new highwater mark in an already successful career and extends her range immeasurably. An excellent set, with well-stocked bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling, took in the full extent of the small stage; the lighting and incidental music was complementary to the play as a whole and Rita’s wardrobe extensive enough to question the rate of pay at the hairdresser’s where she worked to begin with.
Jimmy James

Photo Shoot

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