Willy Russell's Educating Rita - made popular by the 1983 film version starring a mouthy Julie Walters and Michael Caine - is a modern variation on the Pygmalion story. A comedy about the relationship between Frank, a cynical professor, and Rita, a dissatisfied hairdresser and Open University student who wants to learn "everything", it raises questions about the difference between education and knowledge, and about the reality of lifelong learning.
It is directed by York Theatre Royal's artistic director Damian Cruden, who says: "The play is a classic two-hander and as relevant today as it was in 1980 (when it was first performed). It asserts everyone's right to have an education, but also asks, what is an education?" Frank's passion, he says, "is to have a student who uses the art he teaches for her own personal growth and understanding, which contrasts with the idea of education in which you use all the right buzzwords to pass an exam. But Rita is also using education as a means of getting out of a social situation - she sees it as a way of breaking bonds. She really needs a piece of paper that says 'pass' on it."
By contrast, says Cruden, Frank "has been too long in the cattle market of education and he's disillusioned by the ease with which he can get students through exams". At the play's climax, Rita asserts her independence from Frank. She says she now has a room full of books and knows "what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see", but Frank replies: "Have you come all this way for so very, very little?" Cruden's production is set in 1980, "to emphasise the fact that our development as a society is slower than we might like to think". His Rita, instead of being Liverpudlian, is from Newcastle. All Cruden had to change were the play's references to Formby, where Frank lives, and to Liverpool and Everton football clubs.
The key to Rita's character, Cruden says, is that "she's a strong reader, managing to devour Harold Robbins, D H Lawrence and E M Forster in a week while working and cooking for her husband. She enjoys the mental freedom that being able to read gives." For Rita, education means "getting something she never had - and that is essentially a true sense of self". What she loses is the "pure untutored innocence of someone who approaches art for the first time".
Aleks Sierz Box office: 01904 623568. Maggie Goddard, education officer, is running three school workshops (01904 658162); there is a post-show discussion on March 6