Much-loved Willy Russell play heads for Norwich

A major new production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, starring Stephen Tompkinson, is heading out on tour across the UK and will arrive at the Theatre Royal from June 10-15.

The play was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company opening at the Warehouse Theatre in London in 1980 where it starred Julie Walters and Mark Kingston. Julie Walters went on to reprise her role in the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film opposite Michael Caine in 1983.

Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson in Educating Rita. Credit: Robert Day.

Willy Russell, who thinks of the play with great affection, has said of his work: “Nobody had any big plans for this play, so when something happens so unexpectedly you always have a special regard for it because it came out of nowhere and suddenly made it. It’s coming up to its 40th anniversary, would you believe?”

He added: “When it first opened, I remember saying to Mike [Ockrent] the original director, ‘It’s not actually got much stagecraft to it this, it’s just a series of scenes’. So to still be talking about Educating Rita 40 years later reminds me of how gloriously wrong and stupid playwrights can be!”

Willy has been there through the rehearsal process for this new production by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers, which is co-produced by the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick where the tour opened on April 18. Directed by Max Roberts and with Stephen Tompkinson in the role of university lecturer Frank, it introduces Jessica Johnson as Rita.

Stephen Tompkinson’s television credits include five series of DCI Banks, seven series of Wild at Heart, six series of Drop the Dead Donkey (British Comedy Award Winner for Best TV Comedy Actor), four series of Trollied and three series of Ballykissangel, and his film roles include Phil in Brassed Off. His theatre work includes Spamalot, Rattle of a Simple Man, and Arsenic And Old Lace in the West End, Cloaca and A Christmas Carol (Old Vic), and Tartuffe (National Tours).  He recently toured to Norwich Theatre Royal in Art playing opposite Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson.

Stephen Tompkinson as university tutor Frank in Educating Rita. Credit Robert Day.

Jessica Johnson’s theatre credits include Call Me Mary Poppins, Goth Weekend, Kings and Queens, Each Piece and Anti-Gravity at the Live Theatre, Newcastle. She previously played Rita in Rebecca Frecknall’s 2017 production of Educating Rita at the Gala Theatre, Durham, while her television credits include Wire In The Blood (ITV), Coronation Street (ITV) and Cuckoo (Channel 4).

Jessica Johnson as Rita in Educating Rita. Credit Robert Day.

The pairing came about after a serendipitous meeting between the two leads when both were performing at Live Theatre in Newcastle. Jessica said: “We crossed paths and got chatting, and I just said to Stephen I thought he would make an amazing Frank. I had just done a short run of Educating Rita in Durham at the Gala Theatre, and was telling Stephen how I’d love to get a longer run at this incredible role.”

Stephen, 53, added: “It transpired it’s a play we’ve both loved for many, many years.  So I went away and re-read the play, which I had been reading since I was 15. In fact a school friend and I used to rehearse it in my dad’s garage together, but of course I was way too young for the role back then.

“But re-reading the play, I realised I’m now the right age to play Frank which was a little bit scary to begin with!”

Director Max Roberts is Emeritus Artistic Director of Newcastle’s Live Theatre. Under his direction, the Live Theatre has become one of the country’s most successful theatre companies with an outstanding reputation for developing new work. His Olivier Award-nominated production of Lee Hall’s Cooking With Elvis transferred to the West End, while he also directed The Pitmen Painters, which toured to Norwich Theatre Royal in 2009.

Educating Rita tells the story of married hairdresser Rita, who enrols on an Open University course to expand her horizons, and her encounters with university tutor Frank. Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker, who is less than enthusiastic about teaching Rita. However, Frank soon finds that his passion for literature is reignited by Rita, whose technical ability for the subject is limited by her lack of education, but whose enthusiasm Frank finds refreshing. The two soon realise how much they have to learn from each other.

Born in Liverpool in 1947, Willy Russell left school at 15 and became a women’s hairdresser and part-time singer/songwriter before returning to education to retrain as a teacher. Russell’s other writing credits include the Olivier Award-winning musical Blood Brothers, and the hugely successful play Shirley Valentine, which won the Olivier Awards for Best New Comedy and Best New Actress, and a  Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. Both shows have recently toured to the Theatre Royal.

Willy Russell continues to be one of the most celebrated writers of his generation with works constantly in production throughout the world as well as in the UK.