Meet Frank, a boozy, burnt-out professor who wants nothing more than to drink himself into oblivion, and Rita, a free spirited hairdresser who thinks Macbeth is the guy who runs the local pub – she's also Frank's newest Open University student.  Educating Rita is a beautiful bittersweet comedy about a man who has given up on life and a woman who is determined to change hers.

Willy Russell's semi-autobiographical play, Educating Rita, was turned into a 1983 film with Michael Caine and Julie Walters.  It remains a stage favourite.

STAG director, and VDL winner,  Brett Turner, took time out from his very busy schedule to share his thoughts about the enduring quality of this play and what it is that makes it so special.

It is lovely to see the British comedy Educating Rita by Willy Russell back on the theatre circuit –  Can you talk a little about this play and what it is that drew you to it?

I’ve always been a fan of Willy Russell plays, including ‘Shirley Valentine’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and ‘Stags and Hens’. But with Educating Rita I love the way the characters develop in their relationship towards each other.

The play was, of course, adapted for the screen and became a very successful movie starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. I think the movie spoke in a very powerful way to most who saw it.  What influences did the movie have over yourself and what ideas, if any, will you borrow for this production and why?

Given that Julie Walters originated the role On-stage and then came across for the film adaption there will always be some comparison. However I think as both characters are so beautifully written myself and the cast give our own interpretation. Having said that, if anything is ‘borrowed’ it is not intentional.

Some audiences will be very familiar with the movie and may perhaps expect to see the screen play on the stage. How similar is the stage play to the screen play?

The film that was based on the original stage play was expanded to include other characters, mainly Rita’s husband Denny and other locations around the university and workplaces. The stage play takes in Frank’s office with just the two characters so it is a much more intimate show.

The play has some particular requirements – a Liverpudlian working-class accent for one – What was the audition process like in terms of what skills you were particularly looking for from the auditioning actors?

The audition process involved call-back just from the sheer number of people involved and for Rita particularly having a specific accent was paramount. Overall the audition process was trying to find an actor with the emotional scope required for Rita’s journey and also to see a chemistry between Frank and Rita.
Early days yet but can you talk about the rehearsal process and how you feel this is progressing?
For the first 2 week we did basic blocking for movement and are currently tightening, consolidating and finding little ‘moments’.
The play has a cast of two – huge responsibility for these actors in terms of keeping the action and play moving – what strategies are you employing to ensure the actors are able to keep the story alive so to speak?

Even though there is a cast of 2, the characters are so different which keeps the momentum going; Rita for example has such enthusiasm and energy and doesn’t sit still for too long. Frank on the other hand is the more grounded of the roles. So for Rita it was great to find an actress who could ‘embody’ all of  Rita’s qualities and for Frank it was important to find an actor who could underplay the role and have a lovely ‘stillness’. It was also important for the two actors to have great rapport with each other.
Some directors prefer intimate casts. What is your preference regarding cast size and why?
The more I direct over the years and the older I get, it almost seems that the cast gets smaller. Ideally though I probably wouldn’t go over a cast of 8, it just starts to get a little too hard trying to fit everyone on stage without blocking people.
Some of the themes most prevalent in the play are to do with change and self improvement and the sacrifices that often have to be made to attain these. What other aspects of the play are you interested in developing and why?

Although the play is about Rita’s journey, Frank also has some moments of reawakening and remembrance. Ultimately I think it is a play about where you fit and how you connect to others. Also I think that Frank and Rita would stay friends long after the written story finishes.

What is your hope that audiences take away with them after having viewed the play?

I can only hope that every audience member goes away with something different from the production. Although there are no earth shattering revelations it is a human story of two very different people from very different backgrounds finding a commonality and showing we always have something to teach and something to learn from others. Oh, and I hope they have a good laugh as well.

And finally, what is next for you?

Not sure, just reading scripts at the moment.  Although I have some ideas bubbling in the back of my mind for another Willy Russell play, possibly Shirley……

Educating Rita will run at STAG (Cnr. Loeman and Napier St Strathmore) from November 17 – November 26
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