Two productions of classic plays caught my eye this month. One was a headline production at the Gala Theatre, continuing its transition back to a producing theatre. The other was a smaller-scale production down in Yorkshire. Both are excellent scripts where there is little the producing company can do other than be faithful to it, so let’s get straight on with how they did.
Starting at the Gala, this is their second in-house production since they restarted this last year with The Fighting Bradfords (or the third if you count their small-scale immersive piece No Turning Back). Last year it was new writing, this year it’s the revival of a classic. Not everyone who came to see last year’s friends will be interested in a revival; but there again, not everyone who watches a tried and tested play wants the lottery of a new work. As the only major theatre in Durham, I think it’s fair enough to have different plays appealing to different audiences. “Rita” (not really her name, but that becomes relevant later) signs on with the Open University wanting to learn more about literature. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. The barrier is partly snobbery – even supportive tutor Frank sometimes lets his casual prejudices slip in – and partly her own fear of this snobbery, but it’s mostly the inverse snobbery of friends, family, and husband who all expect her to stop learning and have a baby like everyone else.
This version of the play was publicised as a north-east version, of the story, but, to be honest, the only difference I noticed there was one local reference changed to Seaham. No, the most interesting wasn’t what’s changed, but what hadn’t. Many of Willy Russell’s plays are personal to him and the life he observed on Merseyside, and Educating Rita is no exception. But if Willy Russell thought he was capturing attitudes of the time before society moved on, he’d have been mistaken. Very interesting quote in the programme from director of this production, Rebecca Frecknall. Her father is an academic and he said he still witnesses cases such as Rita’s, where students pay for their education with ostracisation from disapproving families.
As I said in the recommendation, Educating Rita is a can’t-go-wrong choice for any theatre – the script is so strong you can make a great play from any reasonably competent pair of actors. But even so, the Gala couldn’t have wished for a better choice of a Rita than Jessica Johnson. Patrick Driver made a fine Frank too, but you could tell from the first scene who was going to steal the show. There’s so many layers written into Rita’s character that comes through right from the start, and Johnson capture all of this. Mostly Rita has a brash exterior, signing up the course with an air of someone who can take it or leave it, but this is only a front to hide a crushing lack of confidence. When she makes the quip about probably jacking it before too long, or that these books probably aren’t for people like her, the look on her face gives away that it’s not just a self-deprecating joke, but something she’s been made to believe.
Just one fault to pick with the production. It’s not really that big a deal, but it’s frustrating as this was such an easy thing to avoid. For anyone sitting in the front rows, you frequently had to put up with blocked sightlines. The design of the set didn’t help – it looked good, but the narrow shape of Frank’s study took out the sides of the Gala’s stage which would normally have made blocking much easier. The high floor also made it harder to see what was going on, but worst slightline killer was a completely unnecessary high-backed chair positioned at the edge for the stage for a long period. This would be forgivable for a touring production that brings along a set to different theatres, but for this to happen for a bespoke set for a single theatre was quite unusual.
However, that’s the only issue I have with an otherwise flawless production. The biggest strength of any Educating Rita production will always be the script, and for that the credit goes to Willy Russell, but the Gala Theatre did a fine job bringing the play to life and capturing a class divide that still won’t go away. They can add another success to their in-house productions, and hopefully this can keep going.
September in the Rain
Now it’s over to North Yorkshire for another classic play. But whilst the Gala Theatre enjoys a decent budget and a decent set on the big stage, Esk Valley Theatre runs on a much smaller budget. Each August they run a play in Glaisdale, but a relatively new venture is to tour a play round rural North Yorkshire. They still use professional actors, and this pair have an impressive list of credentials elsewhere – something that is only possible, I suspect, by this rural company being one that professional actors love to work for.
This is the second time I’ve seen September in the Rain, and it’s a play I’ve got a soft spot for. Throughout film, theatre and television, couples normally serve one of two functions: either start where boy meets girl and they live happily ever after; or for a couple already together, a miserable pair with a marriage falling apart. Rarely any middle ground. Here, however, Jack and Liz are a married couple who have been happily together their whole lives, and even when they have rows that would have spelt doom in any soap, they make up and move on. And this couple come from an age where you could go to Blackpool for your holiday each and every year, and be happy and want nothing more. We are greeted by an elderly couple waiting for the bus home from Blackpool, and they tell you about their very first holiday, with snippets from other holidays with children in tow dropped into the story.
The first production I saw of this Godber play was directed by John Godber himself, touring to large theatres with sophisticated set, musical score and lighting plot. This production, touring to smaller stages, makes do without that. You can’t really make a fair comparison between the two – one one thing, it’s highly unlikely a version like the one I saw at Darlington Civic Theatre would be bringing theatre to rural communities in North Yorkshire – but anyone who’s used to higher-budget Godber might miss some of the touches in this smaller-scale production. Nevertheless, the essence is captured nicely in this gentle play, and director Sheila Carter shows a good understanding on the characters, obsessing one moment, bickering the next, and then getting on with their holiday.
There was only one thing I thought could have been done better, and that was the transition from old Jack and Liz to young Jack and Liz. This is supposed to be their last holiday – Jack’s health isn’t up to the journey any more, and next year they’re going somewhere on the east coast. But in this production, the elderly Jack and Liz look too lively for this; you really need a more frail couple to being that important part of the story home. Other than that, this was a nice faithful performance of a play close to Godber’s heart that does it justice, and it’s good that Esk Valley theatre are bringing performances like this across the rural venues of the Moors.