Lovely Rita

It’s back. Did we think that, just because, in 1983, Michael Caine and Julie Walters did such a memorable job in the movie version of Educating Rita, we would see the end of it? Did we think that this remake of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion meets Bertolt Brecht would die because a definitive version was made for the screen? If so, then thank God it didn’t, or local theatre-goers would miss out on a thoroughly endearing experience, one to which Mairi Babb, as Rita, and Andrew Gillies, as Frank, brought charm and wit.

The play opens into one of those oak-paneled rooms where ancient books line musty bookshelves and a ponderous desk sits like an icon in its midst. Sitting behind it is something even more iconic — a university professor named Frank, dissatisfied with life and disillusioned with his profession. Having assumed a short-term position at a city college catering to London’s lower class, he dreads his first day and seeks refuge in his books. Well, actually, it’s what is hidden behind those books — bottles of booze — that receive frequent visits from this highbrow-hating curmudgeon.

Then Rita enters — both the room and his life. “Enters” is, in fact, a weak word for what she does. After struggling to open the door, which sticks (metaphorical, or what?), she finally gains access, bursting in like the proverbial bull into this bastion of academia. She has come to learn — or so she thinks. Frank, on the other hand, subconsciously realizes that she is there to teach.
In a series of connected vignettes, we witness this bubblegum chewing hairdresser — brash and bubbly with non-stop banter — transform into an academic all-star while the inebriated sod masquerading as a university professor learns how to exhale once again.

Frank invites her to sit down on one of the overstuffed (metaphorical, or what?) leather couches. Rita, however, is far too excited to sit. She parades around the room claiming ownership as she examines every aspect of it.

She looks out fondly from the grime encrusted window onto the commons where students lounge, self-consciously aware that she really doesn’t fit in, but she is determined to make it a part of her, to wrestle with it until it submits and reveals its secrets to her. She expects education to provide her with the ability to choose, which her working-class background has taken away.
Frank, smitten by Rita’s working-class charm, initially attempts to discourage her. Fearing (quite appropriately, as the audience will discover) that this charm will be lost to the superficial language of literature. At one point during the play, she attempts to open the window but it refuses to allow fresh air to enter.

But what Rita wants, Rita gets.

There are interestingly subtle aspects to the play. During the course of it, Frank goes from tweed to jeans, while Rita goes from mini-skirts to “more dignified” attire, changing jobs in the process.
In all, this production is thoroughly delightful, and thoroughly engaging, as are the actors who play their roles superbly.

Educating Rita runs until April 10 at the Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Theatre (Mainstage).