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Matter of choice

"Am I studying for an exam or am I studying literature?" The hairdresser is back asking questions in two new productions of Educating Rita. Aleks Sierz reports

EDUCATING RITA. By Willy Russell. Derby Playhouse and Duke's Theatre, Lancaster

Although Willy Russell's Educating Rita (1979) is known to most people through the 1983 film version, which starred a brassy Julie Walters and an awkward Michael Caine, it is now regularly in the top five most popular plays on the British stage.

A variation on the Pygmalion story, it's a comedy about the relationship between Frank, a cynical university professor, and Rita, a dissatisfied hairdresser who wants to learn "everything". It raises questions about the difference between education and knowledge, and about the reality of lifelong learning.

Karen Hebden, who directs it for the Derby Playhouse, says: "The play resonates particularly with people in the audience like Rita, women who do get left out of the education system." Some references to the unions and unemployment "are a little bit dated, but its central theme is still relevant". Basically, she says, "it's about people wanting to have a different life, after having done what was expected of them - and this applies to both Frank and Rita." And because literature deals with human passions, "the relationship between the teacher and pupil is also highly emotional".

Russell seems to be both "damning and praising education at one and the same time - he gives you both sides of the coin. Education offers great opportunities, but the cost is leaving behind the people you grew up with."

Education is improving, but, the play asks, does it make you any happier? Ian Hastings, who directs the Lancaster Duke's production - in rep with David Mamet's Oleanna (which is also about a tutor and his female pupil) - says: "With all the recent fuss about exams, the play is highly relevant: it questions the point of exam-based education." The central theme is "whether education teaches examination technique at the expense of spontaneity, suppressing originality and creativity". The implicit question that Rita asks is: "Am I studying for an exam or am I studying literature?"

Russell's skill, says Hastings, lies in "suggesting that Frank is frustrated by having to suppress Rita's natural flair in favour of something much more dour", while ending on "a positive note - she tells Frank that he needn't have feared, what she needed was the choice."

Today, says Hastings, "the problem with teaching plays is that young audiences, armed with their Brodie's Notes, see a production that departs from a standard interpretation and they think that means it's wrong". The written text, he stresses, is "just a play kit - you have to bring it to life. Educating Rita suggests that you have to look beyond Brodie's Notes".

The Derby Rita runs until March 1 Box office tel: 01332 363275

Education Day February 26, and schools workshops, tel: 01332 547222). The Duke's Rita runs from February 14 to March 29Box office tel: 01524 598500 (pre-show discussions, details from box office)

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