Theatre reviews: Educating Rita | Sweet Dreams | Twelfth Night

Frank (Matthew Kelly) and Rita (Claire Sweeney) in Educating Rita. Picture: Catherine Ashmore
Frank (Matthew Kelly) and Rita (Claire Sweeney) in Educating Rita. Picture: Catherine Ashmore
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WILLY Russell’s classic story of social, sexual and intellectual empowerment seems like it’s set in a bygone age, but is still as funny, clever and heartwarming as ever

EDUCATING RITA

THEATRE ROYAL, GLASGOW

Rating: ***

TWELFTH NIGHT

TRAQUAIR HOUSE, INNERLEITHEN

Rating: ****

SWEET DREAMS

ORAN MOR, GLASGOW

Rating: ***

EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION. It’s a great slogan; but it carries meaning only in a society with a clear sense of the knowledge, culture and values it wants to pass on to the next generation. Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, first seen in London 32 years ago, now seems more of a period piece than a contemporary play; a touching reminder of a time, back in the 1960s and 70s, when British culture was fairly confident about what a “good education” might mean, and was, for a while, determined to offer it to many more people than ever before, on a basis of ability rather than wealth.

So when Rita storms into the book-lined study of her Open University tutor Frank, demanding “something better” than the cheap, commercialised popular culture that surrounds her life as a discontented hairdresser, there’s not much doubt about what her education will involve. She will read Shakespeare and Blake, Yeats and EM Forster, Ibsen and Chekhov; she will go to the theatre, for the first time in her life; and she will learn how to shape, support and defend an academic argument, talking with ever greater sophistication and confidence, even if she never quite abandons her Scouse accent. And in the process, she will gain part-ownership of the dominant culture of her country, instead of feeling excluded and disempowered by it.

By 21st-century standards, of course, this looks like something out of a fairytale: the dominant culture has fragmented and become contested, and the ladder from working-class exclusion to middle-class success no longer leads straight up through a free higher education system with a clear mission. Yet Russell’s tender and idealistic comedy still makes for a touching and well-shaped evening of theatre; and it’s well served by Tamara Harvey’s attractive, straightforward touring production, playing in Glasgow this week.

Matthew Kelly, as Frank, has a slight tendency to begin his performance where it should end, in such an unattractive shambles of alcoholic self-pity that it’s difficult to see why Rita warms to him in the first place; and there is an agonising misjudgment of tone in the dying moments of the play, involving a crude visual joke. Claire Sweeney, though, makes a delightful Rita, warm, sexy, thoughtful, clever and funny, and the effect of the play is still both heartwarming and deeply thought-provoking, for anyone who is interested in how Britain’s class structure has changed, over these 30 years, and in how higher education has changed with it, for better or worse.

Shakespeare plays a key role in Rita’s education, of course, yet almost 400 years after his death, the bard remains a contested figure, in a Britain depressingly divided between true enthusiasts, and a sceptical majority who regard Shakespeare with a mixture of boredom and hostility, a symbol of cultural snobbery. It’s a rare delight, therefore, to spend a sunny summer weekend at an event like the Traquair Shakespeare Festival, at Traquair House near Innerleithen, which tries to celebrate the joy and richness of Shakespeare’s legacy in ways that are fun and accessible, and that involve a wide community of people around the Borders.

This year’s first full weekend programme featured Guy Masterson’s one-hour solo touring show Shylock - a powerful study of anti-Semitism in Europe based on the story of The Merchant Of Venice – and Edinburgh Theatre Arts’s recent production of Macbeth In Scots, now selected to go to Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s UK-wide Open Stages Festival. The centrepiece of the weekend, though, was Richard Forsyth’s delicious promenade production of Twelfth Night, played out in glorious evening sunlight around the magnificent woods, gardens, mazes and terraces that surround the house.

As a pro-am production, Twelfth Night offered the usual range of performances, from the awkward to the brilliant. In the end, though, it boasted three or four tremendous assets. There were fine performances from most of the leading players, led by an astonishing Caitlin Morris as Viola, only 15 years old and already in full command of this dazzling Shakespearean text. There was the wholehearted involvement of a whole team of local children as cheerleaders, singers and audience guides. There was a memorable score of music and songs delivered by musical director Chris Dube and a team of young musicians; and above all, there was the near-perfection of the house-and-garden setting, glorious yet domestic, which might have been designed for Twelfth Night, of all Shakespeare’s plays.

In the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season at Oran Mor, meanwhile, leading Scottish writer Ron Butlin makes his first attempt at an original stage play with Sweet Dreams, a story of an intelligent, well-meaning Scottish middle-class couple left stranded by the global economic downturn. At a bare 45 minutes, Sweet Dreams is a strange mixture of the strikingly accurate, and the slightly inept. Butlin is absolutely clear about the quiet, slow-burning tragedy of the situation in which childless Peter and Maggie find themselves, as her job disappears into history, and his – selling taps in a giant furniture store called Megawant – gradually crumbles beneath him.

Yet despite the accuracy of his observation, and the poignancy of the situation, Butlin seems to have few ideas about how to drive the story forward through action; he attempts some mild absurdism, complete with rhyming advertising slogans, and then eventually falls silent. Yet Anita Vettesse and Greg Powrie deliver two fine, light-touch performances; and if the play often seems to be going nowhere, the characters remain memorable, long after the last pint has been drunk, and the last pie eaten.

• Twelfth Night, Educating Rita and Sweet Dreams all run until Saturday.