Preview: Educating Rita

Andy Murray talks to actor Gillian Kearney about reviving scrunchies and 1980s foodstuffs in a new production

Hero image

The 1980s was a pretty bleak period for Merseyside. But hard times can bear fruit in the field of popular culture, and at the time Liverpool spawned some great music, TV and drama. Willy Russell, for instance, was at his creative peak with Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers.

Now Manchester’s Library Theatre is reviving Russell’s Educating Rita. Playing Rita is Gillian Kearney, a familiar face from a whole range of TV and theatre, who first made her name as the luckless Debbie McGrath in Channel 4’s Scouse soap Brookside.

Over the years, Russell has made many revisions to the play, but this production goes right back to its origins. “We’ve set it in 1980 – hence the scrunchie,” smiles Kearney, gesturing to her hair. “We went back to the original script, which is full of references to Stork margarine and the unions. Chris Honer, the director, felt that it doesn’t quite work if you try to update it.”

But there are some aspects of the play that come over differently with changing times. “In the play Rita’s just split up from her husband, which still matters today, but it’s not the same degree of hugeness. And when Rita first walks into Frank’s room, she says ‘I bet it’s really odd for you teaching someone like me’, whereas today it isn’t quite so unconventional to have mature students.”

The Frank in question is the bibulous, middle-aged Dr Frank Bryant, Rita’s personal tutor on an Open University degree course in English literature. Rita herself is an irrepressible 29-year-old working-class divorcee, determined to expand her learning. “I love her, she’s great!” says Kearney. “It’s really good fun to play someone who’s so hungry-minded and enthusiastic. She’s like the opposite of aloof. She’s really there, completely 100 per cent switched on, all the time. It’s very refreshing to play someone that open.”

The play’s already something of a modern classic. It’s been studied, ironically, on English literature GCSE courses. And the 1983 big-screen adaptation, with Julie Walters as Rita, has been voted amongst the BFI’s top 100 British films. This could mean that Walters’ performance will loom large in the public consciousness, but Kearney isn’t letting that faze her.

“I’ve have seen the film years ago, and I will watch it again, but I haven’t yet because I don’t want it to inform what I’m doing now. I’m trying to keep it fresh for myself and just approach it like any play script.”

So in reviving the play in 2013, are there fresh nuances to draw out in the relationship between Rita and Frank? “For me, it’s not sexual between them, but it is love. There’s a great love coming from Rita towards Frank and vice versa. I think there’s a father-daughter relationship that springs up between them. Then she kind of rejects it, the way that children have to reject their parents.”

It’s striking that Rita, like many of Russell’s main characters, is female. “I think he uses women because they’re just more verbose. He once said that he tried to make Shirley Valentine a man, but they don’t open up the way women do.”

Clearly, Russell has a knack for writing from a woman’s perspective. “Willy used to be a hair stylist and Rita’s a hairdresser. He went into education late. So does Rita. I think there’s a lot of Willy Russell in there.

“He’s such a good writer. Obviously it helps that I’m a Liverpool girl so I recognise the rhythm of the language.

“But it’s actually quite easy to learn the lines – well, touch wood – because they’re such natural thought processes: those are the things I would say.”

Educating Rita, 26 September -12 October, Library Theatre Company at The Lowry. For more information go to

Interact: Responses to Preview: Educating Rita

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.