The stylist and the souse

MTC’s production of Willy Russell’s Pygmalion update Educating Rita is a fast-paced theatrical romp with heart

  • Devil in a denim dress: Andrew Gillies as Frank and Mairi Babb as Rita in Educating Rita, now playing at the MTC John Hirsch Theatre. – Bruce Monk

Rita wants to be educated; she wants to know everything.

From the minute Rita stumbles into Frank’s office, the audience is barraged with her “dead seriousness” regarding her earnest pursuit of knowledge.

Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of Educating Rita, directed by MTC artistic director Stephen Schipper, focuses on the relationship between a boisterous Liverpudlian student and her polar-opposite poet professor.

MTC veteran Mairi Babb (It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play, Pride and Prejudice) dawns hairdresser Rita’s giant auburn ‘do, while Andrew Gillies’s (Emerald City, The Taming of the Shrew) lanky frame decorates the scene with distinction.

This modern day My Fair Lady focuses around the value of an education and the importance of remaining true to yourself in an academic society in which conformity and status quo are considered most valuable.

There are only two actors and one small set in this piece, but the pace never slackens in this class-based comedy. The timing is essentially what drives the production forward as Babb’s lightning-fast retorts never waver despite the play’s length.

Frank’s mounting, secret alcoholism culminates in a show-stopping scene in which a liquor commissions’ worth of booze is revealed to be stashed behind his Dickens and Chaucer.

One of the most poignant features comes in the interplay of space with the characters. In the beginning Rita barges into, and comments on, any and all relics that innocuously lie in the professor’s quarters.

Also, the positions in which the characters occupy are metaphorically represented by the two sides of the desk. Nearing the end of the production, the roles are physically reversed as Rita’s hard work and unabashed nature have propelled her into the role of the teacher.

An interesting stylistic element that is unique to this production comes in the form of the distinction of time. The pupil’s sessions are on a weekly basis, divided by nostalgia-filled blackouts in which iconic images and sounds of the late ’70s are displayed.

Rita manages to effortlessly storm into Frank’s office in a completely different outfit each time, her style maturing, along with her outlook.

Willy Russell’s play offers an interesting presentation of the politics of academia that may resound in the university crowd, but the comedy seems to be geared ironically towards an exclusive high-brow academic audience.

All in all, Educating Rita entertains with performances that will leave audiences with the impression that maybe, sometimes, students really do make the best teachers.

Published in Volume 64, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 25, 2010)

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