Educating Rita

The Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch

28/05/2016 - 25/06/2016

Production Details

The Court’s latest play could inspire women to leave their husbands

From the writer of Blood Brothers (Willy Russell) comes his most acclaimed play, Educating Rita, an hilarious and moving story of a woman determined to better herself.

Thinking that there is more to life than working in a hair salon, street-smart Rita, fizzing with ambition, sets out to find herself through higher education. Booksmart Frank, a failed poet with a failed marriage, has grown disillusioned with higher education and has just about given up. He agrees to tutor Rita to pay for his drinking habit, totally unaware his world is about to be turned upside down.

The unlikely pair form a life-changing bond as Frank enlivens Rita’s soul through Shakespeare and Chekhov, while Rita reawakens Frank with a breath of fresh air in this heart-warming comic masterpiece.

“I wanted to make a play which engaged and was relevant to those who considered themselves uneducated, those whose daily language is not the language of the university or the theatre,” said playwright Willy Russell.

Russell wrote Educating Rita at the end of 1979. He had been commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company to write something for a season of experimental work but the play very nearly didn’t happen. With his deadline looming and nothing on paper, Russell had asked the RSC to take their advance back but they would not agree. Thankfully, not long after “Rita just walked on to the page”, said Russell. 

Those who know Willy Russell’s career path may spot some parallels with that of his character Rita. Both started out their working lives as hairdressers and both took up higher education at a later age, becoming the oldest student in their class. Although he wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, a disdain for research meant Russell mined his own experiences for the necessary background material in the play.

In addition to Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, Russell’s best known plays are Shirley Valentine and Our Day Out. 

Julie Walters, who played Rita 36 years ago on stage and later in the film version, still has women tell her that they left their husbands, inspired by Rita’s personal growth and independence in the show. It has even coined a condition known as the ‘Educating Rita Syndrome’. A 2010 study by the UK National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education concluded that married women who go back to school to continue their education often face marriage breakdowns.

The Court’s production of Educating Rita features Kathleen Burns in the title role alongside one of New Zealand’s most respected actors, George Henare. 

Henare has amassed many acting credits during his 50 year career including: Once Were Warriors, Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Street Legal, Death of a Salesman (for which he received a Chapman Tripp Award), and tours of Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera and HMS Pinafore. He has received a Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, and is a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the theatre.

Educating Rita will be Henare’s first show in the new theatre at The Court. It will also be his last show in New Zealand before he moves to Sydney to perform in the Broadway hit musical Aladdin.

Kathleen Burns is a regular on The Court main stage and has been a Court Jester for 13 years. She played Linda in The Court’s 2014 sell out production of Blood Brothers.

Educating Rita is directed by Yvonne Martin who is very familiar with Russell’s work having previously played Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers and the title role in Shirley Valentine. 

Martin says she will honour the central premise of the play but is not planning on making the show a political statement on women’s rights. “Things have moved on since Russell wrote Educating Rita in the late ‘70s,” says Martin. “But education still brings choice, not just for women like Rita but for all of us.” 

Educating Rita will play
On the Tonkin and Taylor Main Stage at The Court Theatre
28 May – 25 June 2016
To Book phone 03 963 0870 or visit
Tickets $57-$28
Show Times: 
Opening Night: Saturday 28th May, 7.30pm
6.30pm, Monday & Thursday
7.30pm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday  
Show & Forum: Monday 30th May, 6.30pm
Matinee: Saturday June 18th, 2pm
Show sponsored by More FM  

Kathleen Burns: Rita
George Henare: Frank

Yvonne Martin: Director
Harold Moot: Set Designer
Pam Jones: Costume Designer
Sean Hawkins: Lighting Designer
Giles Tanner: Sound Designer & Operator
Christy Lassen: Properties Co-ordinator
Ashlyn Smith: Stage Manager 

Theatre ,

Satisfying blend of hopes and fears

Review by Lindsay Clark 29th May 2016

An affectionate revisiting of this classic two-hander is a warm reminder, as Russell puts it, of “things that matter”. He and we might have hoped that social concerns such as dispirited ignorance on one hand and pretentious institutionalised education on the other would have changed for the better over the past thirty odd years since it was first performed. If only.

However, the real drivers of the play are the timeless themes of the quest for personal freedom and expression as well as the bitter-sweet consequences of changing personal relationships, and these are handled with refreshing zeal.

Yvonne Martin’s direction has all the finesse of experience and insight, ensuring that there is an engaging overall build to a series of tutorial encounters which all take place in the context of The Open University in Liverpool in the eighties, all under our gaze in a single study.

Her creative team lays it all out for us in telling detail. Costume from Pamela Jones delivers working class likely lass and rumpled academic gear; authentic support from sound (Giles Tanner) and light (Sean Hawkins) underpins the realistic business which evolves beyond the black space of The Court’s outer stage.

The study itself, designed by Harold Moot, is suggestively frayed at the edges, angled for interesting use by the two actors and full of clues as to the nature of its occupant. Frank used to be a poet. Now he is more of a small wheel whose uninspired direction is set by his masters. Behind the books in his crowded shelves is the whisky which boosts his passion these days. Beyond that is the pub and a failing marriage that shapes his days. He is taking this Open University course to help fund the booze. 

Into this retreat bursts Rita, hairdresser by trade, ardent seeker of wisdom and truth through the education she imagines a course in English literature will supply. There is scope for both humour and poignancy in the Pygmalion-like trajectory of the teacher-pupil relationship. She is on the rise, he is probably not, unless he can find his own renaissance in Australia, whence he is eventually posted as a reprimand for being drunk at lectures. As she gains the confidence and conviction to make informed and independent choices about “everything”, his own world suffers in comparison. The crossover pattern in their relative status is compelling.

It is a simple enough story but, like all of Willy Russell’s creations, it works strongly on our feelings. Frank, teaching critical analysis, would dismiss these as “subjective” and even “sentimental” but the honesty of the characters is nevertheless as touching as it is funny. Even as we enjoy the sparks and frustrations the mismatched pair encounter in the course of essays and readings, we are also aware of their deeper implications and of what happens when the pupil becomes the teacher.

As Rita and Frank, Kathleen Burns and George Henare are beautifully cast and impeccable in action. Rita comes off the page in marvellously brash technicolour, assertive Scouse accent and all. That does not preclude sensitivity and a certain childlike vulnerability when her hopes are temporarily dashed by her tutor’s firm judgements.

George Henare plays Frank with skill and intelligence, which elevates the role well beyond a superficial Henry Higgins type. His slow almost reluctant kindling of affection for this exasperating student and the barely controlled vexation she brings are handled with marvellous precision.

For the audience, the experience is an entirely satisfying blend of what we hope will happen and what we fear cannot be avoided. That richness of impression and humour ranging from innocent clanger to sophisticated irony enhance a fine production. 


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