Willy Russell's classic Educating Rita hits the stage in Southsea

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in EDUCATING RITA. Credit Robert Day
Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in EDUCATING RITA. Credit Robert Day

A lot of people will know Educating Rita just from the film. But as Stephen Tompkinson says, the play is a much richer, more enjoyable experience.

Stephen is Frank alongside Jessica Johnson as Rita as the show resumes its 40th anniversary tour with dates from February 10-15 at the Kings Theatre Southsea.

Married hairdresser Rita enrols on a university course to expand her horizons. 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.

“With the play, as opposed to the film,” Stephen says, “you have got just the two actors and just the one set and you have got the whole focus on the interdependent relationship they have got with each other.”

And that intensity is precious: “As lovely as it is being in front of a camera, you can find yourself jumping from scene three to scene 73 (when you are doing TV), but on the stage with this, we have got this beautiful piece written by Willy Russell and you go all the way through. You have got a beginning, a middle and an end.

“And the great thing is that it is a proper shared experience with the audience who tell us where the laughs are. You expect laughs with comedy and you know that a lot of it is funny, but the audience are the missing element if you like. The audience tell you where to speed it up and slow it down, and it is different every night.

“We did 18 weeks on tour with it last year, and we went all over the place. I think we finished in August. But it is funny when you know you are going to get a second go at something, your brain manages to retain a lot. Our director Max and I did a play in Newcastle and then we got to transfer to London, and Max said it was like going back to a boeuf bourguignonne the next day and discovering that it tastes even better. And that’s the case with this. You still manage to find new things. You think it is going to be like stepping back into the shoes of an old friend, but you know it is still going to be different.”

And the great thing was that last time they had Willy Russell with them for rehearsals: “It was beautiful. He talks about what things were like when he originally wrote it and how things have changed so much and how audiences have become so much more savvy with their expectations and with the internet. People don’t need to be repetitively spoon-fed with information so much now. Willy took about 20 minutes out of the script for this production. It was just such a massive positive to have him there.”

Frank is a fascinating character to play: “He is a little bit lost when you first see him. He has a failed marriage and he is a failed poet, and he is drinking very heavily. His office is like miniature library, but behind the books he is putting little bottles of Scotch. He is a bit jaded. He does not really enjoy answering questions in the simplistic way where there is no room for individualism, and he is a bit ground down. He is forced to take on these extracurricular courses to meet his drinking bills.

“And into this walks Rita…”

And he is torn. He is drawn to her natural spark, her natural inquisitiveness, but doesn’t want to take it away from her as the teaching would demand: “He doesn’t want to mould her into something formulaic.

“It is a lovely piece.”

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