Saturday, 22 August 2020

REVIEW: Educating Rita at the Minack Theatre, Cornwall

Minack Theatre is a unique venue, perched on the cliffside near Lands End in Cornwall. Its global reputation has grown since its creator Rowena Cade first set out to create the setting in 1932 with over 250,000 annual visitors to the site until COVID closed all UK theatres in March. So it was wonderful to visit it for the first time to see David Pugh's production of Willy Russell's brilliant comedy Educating Rita about a kooky Liverpudlian woman, Rita, seeking to improve herself by discovering the joys of poetry, books and plays under the tutelage of ageing alcoholic tutor, Frank. On tour when the pandemic shut indoor theatres it became one of the first titles to open again in an outdoor venue as soon as the restrictions lifted it easily broke box office records as the public rushed to enjoy both the return to live theatre and to experience the spectacular setting.

When you are guided to the socially distanced seating with cushion in hand an hour before the start time with a wary eye on the clouds overhead in case the threatened rain starts to fall you immediately begin to sense the dramatic theatrical location. The waves from the Atlantic crash on to the rocks that form the backdrop to the small stage with the cliffs and sand of Porthcurno bay in the distance and an occasional seagull overhead it is magical and must have been perfect for its first production of The Tempest. However, the same backdrop is a little distracting for the much more intimate story set in a university lecturers small office and present the two actors with a constant challenge of the wind blowing their long hair and the pages of the books they are studying. 

Equally the challenge for the actors is that they are recreating two characters made famous by Michael Caine and Julie Walters in the 1983 film in perfect casting. Stephen Tompkinson (known for his TV role in Ballykissangel, DCI Banks and Wild at Heart) plays Frank and Jessica Johnson plays Rita. You sensed that Tompkinson seemed to be battling the elements slightly over emphasising his words and constantly making sure he weighted down the papers. Johnson too struggled at times with her Liverpudlian accent and was always in a rush with multiple costume changes in this episodic structure. The script has been stripped back to a ninety-minute running time without an interval to minimise social contact in the audience.

However, now of these issues matter as it is just wonderful to be back in a live theatre watching two very good actors doing their very best to entertain an expectant audience. Rita is a lively enthusiastic student endearingly seeking to improve herself and create options for herself in her life and we warm to her and her efforts to learn. Frank is a world-weary former poet existing in his university life on the hidden bottles of alcohol that dull rather than enliven his artistic senses. He gradually sees the potential of Rita and we are left hoping he will change not just his hair cut but his ways as Rita completes her course. The gap in classes in society feels like it has narrowed over the years since this was written but the recent controversy over exam results suggests that the poorer still struggle to get the same life opportunities as the better-off children. Like Rita, it is to be hoped that those who genuinely make the efforts do get their just rewards. 

The sound quality against the noise of the waves and wind is satisfactory although seated in the rear section A, high up on the cliff face you do have to concentrate hard to hear every word and struggle to see their facial expressions in the way you would indoors. However it is such a joy to be back watching live theatre and the Minack theatre and David Pugh deserve every success, and a big box office to recover the losses from being closed for most of the season. The show does go on regardless of the rainfall ( only the occasional storm warning stops the action) and the long trek down to the UK's most westerly point is definitely worth the effort. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Terrace section A | Price of Ticket: £20

Photographs by Lynn Batten
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