A good friend of mine recently said that he doesn't enjoy directing two-handers, as he feels that shows with only two people can be a bit boring. He knows a lot more about the industry than I do, so whilst I always endeavour to form my own opinion, I was inclined to follow his for the time being.
Two weeks passed and I received an invitation to the press night of Educating Rita at Hull Truck Theatre, and I can now safely state that two-hander shows can be utterly gripping, moving and thought-provoking.
Willy Russell's much-loved play first ran in 1983 and has since been adapted into a movie and a radio show. Following the journey of Rita, a 26-year-old hairdresser committed to bettering herself through a course in English Literature, the scene opens with Frank, a kindly, opinionated and witty lecturer searching for inspiration amongst his chaotic bookshelves. Upon entering the fusty and distinctive office, Rita gets insight into Frank's personality as much as he does into hers thanks to a chatty, bright-eyed demeanour. Despite being two very different characters and Frank's initial misgivings, it is soon agreed that the tutor will indeed teach the student, with the proviso that she must learn to think in a different way, one that he believes could have less value than her current devil-may-care approach.
From herein things get a little sticky. Whilst Rita proves an excellent student, Frank becomes increasingly disillusioned with the academic world to which he has dedicated decades of life. So whilst one climbs to the upper echelons of knowledge and social integration, the other begins a downward spiral into blurry-eyed inebriation, self-loathing and nihilism.
Playing such headstrong and multilayered characters is no mean feat, so director Mark Babych (who is also Hull Truck's Artistic Director) made a wise choice in Taj Atwal and Simon Armstrong. The two seem naturally made for each other, with intoxicating comedy chemistry perfectly counterbalanced by tender moments of friendship, encouragement and betrayal. As for the set, I couldn't help but fall in love with the tumbledown stacks of books, unpolished wooden furniture and vaguely organised paperwork the moment I entered the auditorium. The team behind this production of Educating Rita has done a marvellous job at bringing the story to life for Truck's stage, and I implore you to go see it while you can.
This isn't a happy-clappy-sappy-pappy tale of working class done good. Rather, it explores the transparent cages that are quietly placed around us, regardless of upbringing and education, which suddenly become clear as day and hard as steel. The question then is whether we continue to live within the confines of our culture, or scream our lungs out until saviours present themselves, even if they take the form of E.M. Forster and a little-known poet that gave up writing many years ago.
To book tickets to Educating Rita at Hull Truck Theatre, which runs until Saturday 9 July, call the box office on 01482 323638 or visit www.hulltruck.co.uk.
Reviewer: Rich Sutherland