Educating Rita

Date 8th December 2021
Society Bonkers Theatrical
Venue Bonkers Playhouse
Type of Production Play
Director Mark Walker


Author: Luke Campbell

Opening Remarks

Bonkers Theatrical (‘Bonkers’) is a formidable entity when it comes to the staging of drama. Put simply, the company helps to put the ‘D’ in NODA and has a litany of district, regional and national awards to prove it. 

Since 2018, Bonkers has been the resident company of the Bonkers Playhouse Theatre, Kettering (‘Playhouse’). The independent studio theatre is a special place: its small auditorium is ideal for the staging of the plays that the company is well known for. The Playhouse also boasts a fully licensed bar, a comfortable lounge area, and extremely welcoming hospitality. It was, thus, a relief to me, that the home of this multi award winning company had survived the challenges of the past two years. The survival of the Playhouse and the company is to the credit of the sheer tenacity of Mark Walker and his team. I salute you!     

With the Bonkers’s outstanding reputation in mind, I was thrilled to be invited to review its latest production, ‘Educating Rita’. 

The Show

‘Educating Rita’ was written by Willy Russell and its plot – perhaps, in part, due to the film adaptation starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, but also due to its inclusion in the English curriculum in schools – is reasonably well known. 

The comedic drama details the evolution of a relationship between Rita (a hairdresser-come-Open University student) and Frank (a Lecturer in English Literature). Russell uses the relationship as a backdrop against which to explore themes common to much of his work, namely: the British class system, politics, and education. 

Bonkers had been trying to obtain the rights to stage a production of the play for six years. I am pleased that the rights holder finally succumbed to the repeated requests of Mark, because the company’s production of ‘Educating Rita’ was outstanding. 

Direction by Mark was of the highest standard. The blocking was superb. It was clear to me that his direction played a vital part in the characterisation offered by the cast: the direction granted the actors the space in which to create the authentic relationship required by the script. 

I am extremely impressed that Mark achieved a professional production in such a short rehearsal period, during the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. Well done!    

Frank was portrayed by James Wallace. I congratulate James on his portrayal of the character, which he certainly made his own. I struggled at first to click with the character, but then I realised this was due to the creative genius of the actor, whose use of tone and pace created an intonation to his delivery that produced an aloft barrier between Frank and Rita, which in turn transferred to the audience. Quite the sophisticated move – bravo! 

James handled the full range that the character of Frank has to offer: the execution of the aggression, self-pity, jealousy, and drunkenness were perfect. What’s more is that James was able to land the sincerity and compassion also demanded by the role, ensuring that the nurturing educator, deep within Frank, peered through the whisky soaked cynic the audience first met. 

What I really admire is James’s ability to create a relational partnership against which his co-star could deliver an outstanding performance as the title character, Rita. It is the art of a true professional to know how to balance your own role to permit another to flourish in their role. 

Rita was portrayed by Kate Gillespie-Allan. Her performance was, put simply, mesmerising. In a few more words: captivating, comedic, expressive, vulnerable, authentic, outstanding. 

Kate is an extremely talented actor. Her skills in characterisation, linguistics (the Liverpudlian accent, which was sustained to perfection throughout and replaced with a middle class one when required), and comedic delivery are some of the best that I have seen. She seemed to muster the full range and depth demanded by the complex, yet loveable, character with ease. 

She was able to use her expressive, mischievous charm to create an instant bond between the audience and Rita. At the same time, Kate demonstrated extremely believable vulnerability to captivate the difficult realities that anyone seeking to transcend the British class system encounters. 

For me, Kate’s performance was just as strong as that of Julie Walters in the film, for which she received a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Academy Award nomination. 

Together James and Kate delivered a professional presentation of Russell’s characters. The relationship created was believable – just as the writer intended. Many congratulations! 

The two-act play centred around a single location, Frank’s Office. As such, a stationary box set was used as setting. The set was of a high standard and characterised by its realism. The same is true of the props – the attention to detail did not go unnoticed. Both the set and the props enhanced the production creating an authentic space in which two talented actors could work. 

The costumes were well sourced; reflective of the period in which the play is set; appropriately, formed extensions of the characterisation offered by the cast; and were well deployed to denote the personal transformation experienced by Rita and Frank. Costuming was also used, in part, to indicate the passage of time; however, I think that to truly utilise costumes in this way we needed to see both characters regularly adjust their costuming. 

The lighting design was simple yet realistic. The sound effects were managed with professionalism and the use of classical music to bridge scene transitions demonstrated a real attention to detail. I appreciated that the same music was played in the lounge area during the interval: this created a continuation of the theatrical space.  

One minor observation concerning the tone of the lighting used – some parts of the stage had a greenish light cast upon them. I found this to be clinical and would have preferred a warmer light to have been used. However, I note that this is an extremely picky observation that I can make due to the extremely high standard of the production. 

The stage management was also of an excellent standard. My only suggestion would be to consider how transitions might be executed by means other than blackouts. This comment should be disregarded if the script required transitions to be managed in such a way.  

Concluding Remarks

My warmest of congratulations for an outstanding production of ‘Educating Rita’. 

As Community Theatre starts to build back from the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that audiences feel safe to venture into auditoriums. I applaud Bonkers for its commitment to creating a COVID-19 secure venue: the company remains committed to social distancing, mask wearing, and other vital measures to keep its audiences and actors safe. 

I thank Bonkers for the generous hospitality shown to me upon my visit. 

All the best for the rest of the run and I look forward to seeing the company’s next production. 

Luke Campbell 

8 December 2021