Educating Rita, on its own, is a witty, laugh-out loud play with real substance behind it. But the strength of the cast pushes it to another level.
Rita (Carly Street in a career-making performance) is a 26-year-old Liverpool hairdresser who is sick of living in ignorance amongst her uneducated working class friends and family. Rita’s real name is Susan, but she renamed herself after her favourite author, Rita Mae Brown, writer of the lesbian coming-of-age story, Rubyfruit Jungle.
She seeks higher education from Frank (a nicely paired Ric Reid), a disgruntled English professor who has given up on teaching.
Rita and Frank are perfect opposites, which makes Educating Rita so enticing to watch. Rita has an unabashed desire to learn about the literary greats and become educated while Frank wants to escape his teaching job and forget about his failed attempt as a poet.
Frank stores bottles of liqueur behind his vast book collection in his office to take the edge off his life. Seeing Reid trying to remember under which author he stored his bottles received big laughs on opening night.
As is to be expected of a Willy Russell play (who also wrote Shirley Valentine, last performed in Montreal at the Centaur theatre), Educating Rita is full of hilarious one-liners.
“Do you know of Yeats?” asks Frank.
“The wine lodge?” Rita responds.
“No. W.B. Yeats, the poet,” Frank replies.
The way Street plays Rita, you are never sure what zany one-liner will pop out of her mouth or when the play will turn sentimental. The spontaneity is thrilling and the humour is perfectly timed. Educating Rita is one of those plays where the audience leans forward in their seats, anticipating every moment of hilarious delirium.
When Rita’s husband finds out she is taking literature courses and is on the pill while he thinks they are trying to have a baby, he burns all of Rita’s books and essays. However, serious moments like these are always turned into comedy with Russell’s deft writing.
“Ye didn’t have to do that, I’m not going to have an affair with Anton Chekhov,” Rita tells her husband.
“I wouldn’t put it past you to have an affair with a foreigner,” her husband replies.
After the first act, the play takes a sober turn, as Rita’s knowledge has eclipsed what Frank is meant to teach her. The duo struggles to come to terms with how their relationship can evolve after the literary lesson is over.
Directed by Marcia Kash, the first actress to play Rita in Canada, the play is nicely staged and the performances are truly magnetic. Street nails a Liverpudlian accent without a single flubbed intonation and Reid plays the aging professor with the same worn in feeling of the old fleece sweater he wears on stage.
The Segal Centre has really gotten itself into tip-top shape this year. From the choice of classic plays that still resonate (last month’s Inherit the Wind) to the intricately tailored sets that never fail to amaze, it is never too late to buy a subscription.
Educating Rita plays at the Segal Centre (5170 CÃ´te-Ste-Catherine) until Dec. 13. Tickets are $22 for students and $35-$44 for adults.