Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Educating...whom?

Educating...whom?

Decades ago, in another place, I remember overhearing a parent at a particularly exciting school concert. “Well,” remarked the dad to the mum, “I thought it was our lad who was getting the education: but it seems it’s us too.” What a charming and honest response that was. I felt we were being educated somewhat at the amazing performance of Educating Rita I witnessed in the Studio Theatre on Wednesday. Willy Russell’s sparkling play combines rib-hurting humour (it is so very funny) with a profound and deeply touching message.

The wide-eyed, naïve thirst of Rita for an education, and her relentless demand for it, are both an inspiration and a reproach to the tired, cynical, burnt out university lecturer, Frank. There’s a happy, slightly wistful ending: Frank has developed some self-knowledge and a little (but only a little) rekindling of his intellectual fire, but is “exiled” to Australia. And Rita has gained an education, learning along the way that knowledge is not cost-free, because she learns how to recognise the petty, the selfish, the pretentious and the empty, all of which she has to learn to live with.

Like the best of plays, I think, the audience ends up walking home certainly full of praise for the performance but also still arguing about and grappling with the issues raised so cleverly, so hilariously, yet without pulling any punches. Truly, a good play is an education.

 So too is an astonishing performance. At least three people must have considered themselves mad at times as they approached the performance dates: there are only the two actors in that full-length play, and Rosie Collier as Rita and Thomas Dickson as Frank, Lower Sixth and Year 11 students respectively, certainly had their doubts along the way as to whether they had bitten off more than they could chew. The director, Mr Alan King, must have wondered too.

In the event, the production was truly wonderful. Yet another brilliantly conceived set by Mr Paul Edwards put us firmly in a university lecturer’s study in the 1980s: bookish, a bit chaotic, stifling for Frank but enthralling for Rita. And there the action played out.

It was small wonder that the second night saw a spontaneous standing ovation, a curious thing in a tiny venue. But we were to a man and woman overwhelmed by the power of the performance. Rosie’s Rita was pure Scouse, as she must be: challenging, pugnacious, vulnerable, lovable. I commented afterwards that one simply felt that, if you cut her in half, there would be genuine living-and-breathing Rita all the way through. And no one of Thomas’s age has the right to be so convincingly world-weary and cynical as his tired, disillusioned Frank!

It was truly an education to see them: and I know how much they grew as students, as actors, as people during the course of creating that amazing work of art.

Mr King put some favourite quotes about education on the back of his programme. The first, from W B Yeats, (not the wine lodge but the poet, to quote Rita) was truly apposite: “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”.

A fire was truly lit in this production: I hope and believe it’s still burning for those who were part of it - and for who witnessed it.

Bernard Trafford

Headmaster