Photo Maria Vartanova
Reviewed by Eden Patterson in the Critcism class of P. Langston
A hairdresser walks, not into a bar, but into a university office. It’s the 80’s in Northern England. Rita (26), the hairdresser, is disappointed with her life. She longs for an education but feels the net of society’s expectations drowning her into a sea of an unhappy marriage and into the deep depths of ignorance. Frank, an old, pessimistic, student-loathing alcoholic professor finds the quick-witted and relentless Rita in his office. Over the course of many weeks, Frank guides Rita on her path to higher education and towards a final exam. However, as it is put in the show, “if you wanna change, you gotta do it from the inside.”
Sterling Lynch (director) takes a straight take on the play. Stage direction from the script is followed loyally. Blocking is unmotivated and repetitive, actors moving around the space with no reason. However, there were some exceptional moments. At one moment in the play, Rita sits at one desk and Frank sits at another across the office. As he works, she turns her chair out and tells a story. The contrast of constant movement to both characters sitting, as well as the blocking of the desks themselves (one more upstage and the other further downstage), is lovely.
The set is designed by Rachel Hauraney who takes, again, a predictable but effective take on the play. Nearly the entire set is brown. Shelves of unorganized books line some of the walls with alcohol bottles hidden (and nearing the end of the play, not hidden) behind them. The set represents exactly who Frank is: a professor with an alcohol problem. The painting of Eden reaching for the apple of knowledge is a fabulous touch as an allusion to Rita.
The costumes don’t scream “the 80’s,” but they match the characters at every stage of the play: Rita’s costumes are colourful, then darker and sophisticated.
Allison Haley gives an over-the-top performance as Rita. Although many lines are spoken to the audience and Haley is almost always moving without purpose, Rita shines through. Haley exudes relentless ambition, while still evolving throughout the show. The one detail that takes away from Haley’s performance is the accents she uses over the course of the play. Educating Rita takes place in England, but the accents were unnecessary; Haley sounds Irish, Canadian, and very mid-western.
Mike Kenny (Frank) delivers a perfect balance between enunciating the text in a British fashion while avoiding a complicated accent. Kenny plays Frank straight and this works. He embodies the character and gives subtle hints of character through his movement, like licking his fingers before turning pages. He is a generous scene partner and obviously experienced.
The play remains relevant as most of us wish we could come up for air from society’s expectations. Despite there being no sexual chemistry between Kenny and Haley, the actors give high energy performances worth going to see.
Educating Rita, written by Willy Russell, is at the Ottawa Little Theatre from September 20-October 6.