Educating Rita returns to the stage in Southampton and Horsham

Real-life partners Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson are our Frank and Rita as Willy Russell’s classic play Educating Rita finally gets back on the road.

Monday, 19th July 2021, 7:05 am

“I have lost track of the time,” admits Jess, “but we started about two years ago. The characters in the show have been with us a long time!”

Before Covid struck, unsurprisingly it was a production that was being wonderfully received: “The audience were loving it and we were having a great time which is why we did the official 40th anniversary tour.

“We were in Blackpool (when Covid hit), and it was the oddest experience. We were just waiting for Boris to make the announcement. We knew it was coming, but it just felt unreal. It was quite sad. We didn’t know when we were going to be able to get back. But we have had some wonderful opportunities as well. We did The Minack Theatre in Cornwall, and it was a wonderful place. The stage was so inspiring, and David Pugh, our producer, is such a hard worker and he was so determined. We opened in Kingston in October and we were supposed to be there for three weeks, but we only got two and then we had to go back home again.

“I am not quite sure how we coped, but the reassuring thing was that we were all in the same boat. It was the same for everybody and the community has really pulled together. You can focus on the negative things, but you can also focus on the positive things.

“I am enjoying just being out there, just going out for a coffee. Going out to the cinema has been a really big thing for us, and I do think everybody has been so supportive. And just looking at the positive, we have just got to spend more time at home. We have been touring, ten years on and off, on the road. It was great to get to know your neighbours!”

Educating Rita plays Southampton’s MAST Mayflower Studios from Tuesday, July 20-Saturday, July 24 and then it plays Horsham’s Capitol from Tuesday, September 7-Saturday, September 11.

Famously, it’s the tale of married hairdresser Rita who enrols on a university course to expand her horizons, little realising where the journey will take her.

Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker who’s less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on, but the two soon realise how much they have to teach each other.

As Jess says, Rita is a fantastic part: “The pressure on me is that people just love Rita. People have a sisterly relationship with her. She is like a relative to so many people. You get to want to take care of, and that’s the real pressure. People really do have a place in their hearts for Rita.”

And oddly, thanks to the pandemic, her journey is one that perhaps more and more people are recognising.

“People’s lives have changed because of the lockdowns, because of redundancies, because of losing their jobs, because they are rethinking things. Lots more people are now changing direction like Rita is; lots more people now are trying different things.

“And I think that that is the wonderful thing about the writing, that it is so timeless, that it still touches so many people in so many different ways.”

Plus for Jess, of course, it is great to work with her real-life partner: “We are in our own little bubble and it is definitely easier in all sorts of different ways, but I really admire Stephen as an actor. I feel very safe with Stephen on the stage, and that boosts my confidence, just to go on tour with my partner and to know that I will always be in safe hands.”