Neil Cooper

WILLY Russell was in the pub before the first preview of his play, Educating Rita. The Liverpool-born playwright’s seriously funny two-hander about a hairdresser who enrols on an Open University literature course was about to open at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rough and ready Warehouse space in what is now the Donmar, and he and director Mike Ockrent were seeking nervous refuge. They knew that the RSC had taken a chance on the play, and even though Russell had already had a West End hit a few years before with his Beatles-based musical, John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert, neither of them were sure what the response would be.

“The Warehouse was in what was then quite a seedy part of Covent Garden, a bit like what Mathew Street was like when the original Cavern was there,” a now 72-year-old Russell remembers. “Mike and I were in the Crown pub, and we didn’t know what to expect. Julie Walters was playing Rita, but she had yet to become the great and much revered Julie Walters that she rather wonderfully became. I’d done a few things as well, but none of us were what you’d call a draw. Then Mike nudged me, I looked out the window, and there was a queue. To this day I don’t know why that was, but there seemed to be something in the air.”

Forty years on, Educating Rita has become a modern classic. Ockrent’s original production, which also featured Mike Kingston as Rita’s jaded tutor Frank, saw Walters nominated for an Olivier Award for comedy performance of the year, while the play itself won the award for best comedy. Russell went on to write the screenplay for Lewis Gilbert’s big-screen version in 1983, which saw Walters reprise her role as Rita opposite Michael Caine as Frank.

Since then, numerous stage productions have made Educating Rita a perfect vehicle for actors who can bring depth to some of the play’s glorious one-liners. It currently falls to an already acclaimed Jessica Johnson to take up Rita’s mantle opposite Stephen Tompkinson as Frank in Theatre by the Lake’s 40th anniversary touring production, which arrives in Glasgow next week prior to Edinburgh dates in May. If things had worked out differently, however, Russell’s play might never have happened at all.

“Back then, I didn’t think I was the sort of writer who would be associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” says Russell. “I’d started at the Everyman in Liverpool, and I wrote about things I didn’t think the RSC would be interested in. But their literary manager Walter Donohue had seen my play Breezeblock Park, with Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite, and he saw something. But even after I’d come up with Educating Rita, the response from the RSC wasn’t very enthusiastic, and unbeknownst to me, something I was only told years later, was that it had been sent to the Royal Court, who dismissed it as what they called a boulevard comedy.

“Eventually it was seen by Trevor Nunn, who had pretty much everybody in the RSC in Nicholas Nickleby, and even when it went on, they still didn’t know what they had until the reviews came in. Because of apathy and prejudice, it’s perfectly possible it might never have gone on, but that’s theatre. It’s not a science.”

Educating Rita struck a chord with audiences from the start. This had much to do with Russell’s desire to make his contemporary Pygmalion connect with the sort of people his play was about.

“I knew when I started on the play I didn’t just want it to appeal to the Franks of this world. I wanted it to be for women like my mother, who weren’t afraid of books and art. I wanted it to connect with the Ritas in the audience as well.”

Like Rita, Russell had become a hairdresser after leaving school when he was 15, and his story of the sort of social mobility that is less likely to happen these days was closer to home than even Russell recognised.

“It was pointed out to me I was writing about myself and my own return to education. That stopped me in my tracks, because when I’m writing, I have to feel like I’m drawing things from my own imagination. Only later was I made to realise that Educating Rita is actually autobiographical, even though it’s about a woman. I wanted it to be about a woman, and I wanted it to be a love story – not a romantic love story – but a story about two people who, if they’re not in love, then will love each other for the rest of their lives.

“Salvation for Rita came through education in a way that probably couldn’t happen now, with all those one-to-one tutorials between Rita and Frank. Today, Frank wouldn’t have the luxury of that, because he’d be responsible for 300 students, and wouldn’t have the time. But, despite the fact that we set it very much in the time it was written in, it’s just as relevant today as it was then. That’s because at the centre of the play is a human being striving for something better, and that is a basic and primal experience”

Russell quotes from Paul Simon’s song, Train in the Distance

“The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains,” he says.

Russell too is still striving. Inbetween directing students at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, he’s working on “something I’d vaguely describe as a memoirist piece. And I’m doing a lot of painting.”

Russell sounds both shy and surprised by the latter admission. This probably dates back to art classes at school.

“I was slapped round the head and told to get out of class, and that the only thing I was likely to draw was the dole. Then, in my fifties, I found myself picking up a brush, and now I’m taking lessons, so I’m a student again. There’s someone at the front of the class who knows more than me. I’m back to being Rita.”

Educating Rita, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 24-29; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, May 11-16.