I escaped to Sydney over 11 years ago and haven't looked back since. I enjoy going to cafes, local markets and festivals, and finding the best views in town for free. Visit my twitter page: https://twitter.com/sydneyonabudget
On a wet, autumnal evening I had the good fortune of seeing the new play at The Depot Theatre called Educating Rita running from 10-20 May 2017. Located within the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, my partner and I stepped into the homely foyer where a crowd was gathered. It was the official opening night and patrons were eagerly waiting to slip into the theatre room with a wine glass or beer in tow.
The smaller stage-set works to the Depot Theatre's advantage with tiered seating on two sides. It is anyone's pick where to sit; you can choose to be up and close to the actors or to sit up the back for a bird's eye view. Regardless of the seat placement, the intimate room ensures you won't feel far from the action.
The scene is of a room, an office, with two large shelves of books and a desk fit for a professor along with other furniture. Although it sounds simple enough, the space is smartly utilised throughout the play and the lack of set changes removes distractions away from the story.
The story of Educating Rita is over 35 years old and was written and directed by Willy Russell in 1980. Willy Russell is well recognised as a talented playwright, director, songwriter and author in the UK with many awards to his name including the Olivier Award for Best Comedy and London Theatre Critic Award for Best Musical. While his name is now in lights, his early years growing up were less illustrious having left school at the age of 15. His working class background ended up becoming the inspirations for his creative endeavours and is certainly seen in Educating Rita. It is littered with references to Willy's life giving it an authentic and personal touch.
Educating Rita centres around two characters, Rita (played by Emily McGowan and Frank (played by David Jeffrey). Frank is a scholar and poet who has an unhealthy hobby of drinking alcohol to distract from his unrealised talent. He is also Rita's evening tutor. Rita, a hairdresser by day, is studying by night after finding an unnerving lack of meaningfulness in her life that has given her a new thirst for learning. The juxtaposition of these two characters forms the basis of an unlikely yet entertaining friendship.
We are first introduced to Frank who has little care for making a good impression on his new student. He is dreading the encounter and washes down a whiskey in anticipation. In contrast to Frank's uninspired outlook, Rita is busting to revitalise herself which is symbolically represented in her determination to open the jammed door to Frank's office, with notably no assistance from Frank. It does not stop her though and we, the audience, soon learn that nothing will. Rita wants to learn 'everything' there is to know and seeks inspiration in the detail of Frank's conservative, simple office and in Frank himself.
Rita is married and has a steady but unloved job as a hairdresser. At twenty-six, her life is a regular flow of trying not to cut people's ears off, buying new dresses and avoiding her husband's expectations of entering motherhood. Instead, Rita turns to Frank to help her become educated, and in her words, "I want to discover me-self first". Her enthusiasm is unfazed by Frank who attempts to renege on the arrangement: "I'll bargain with you, I'll tell you everything I know if you promise not to come back here".
Despite Frank's reluctance, Rita's bubbly personality and persistence wins out as they find a common ground in their fondness of swearing and open honesty. Before long, Frank starts teaching Rita literature and introduces her to the imaginative minds of Chekhov and Shakespeare. As the lessons continue on, Rita's newfound knowledge pulls open a world of experiences, once only reserved to people more privileged than her. Rita's progress also breathes a renewed interest in art for Frank, who is taken by Rita's unorthodox views and her affinity to describing everything as 'dead'.
The dry humour of the characters Frank and Rita becomes like an old friend to the audience, something we come to rely upon but is just as enjoyable each time. The irony of Frank moaning about watching an "amateur" play receives the biggest reaction. Some of the more subtle jokes were lost on some of us but still garnered a few chuckles from those in the know. What was not lost though were the strong underlying themes, such as Frank's feelings of hopelessness at being dissatisfied with his own personal achievements and Rita's sense of displacement - feeling stuck between where she is and where she wants to be.
With such a small cast of two, the successful delivery of the play is heavily placed in the hands of the actors. The two-hour act is only broken by a 15-minute interval and there are few moments when they are both not on stage. David Russell, in particular, stays in character between scenes keeping us engaged in the simplicity of using a typewriter or gazing at a painting before Emily McGowan steals the scene time and time again. Their consistent performances will engross you in the story so much that you will ponder what Frank and Rita will do next, even after the lights dim and the audience applauses.
The Depot Theatre is a not-for-profit community theatre in the Inner West of Sydney that showcases affordable, quality and diverse productions.