Within five years of its first production in 1979, Willy Russell's Educating Rita had become the fourth most popular play on the British stage - and it has remained a firm favourite ever since. A comedy about the growing relationship between Frank, a drunken university professor, and Rita, a dissatisfied hairdresser who wants to learn "everything", it raises issues about the difference between education and knowledge, and about our ability to make life-changing choices. The 1983 film version, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine (pictured), further boosted the popularity of this modern Pygmalion story.
Staged by Hull Truck as part of a season of education plays, Educating Rita is directed by Kate Bramley, who says: "It offers no quick-fix answers - that's what I like about it."
A two-hander, "the play follows two separate journeys", she says: "Rita's to educate herself and to have choices in her life; and Frank's, who ends up being forced to move on to another phase in his." Both progress, but by the end, neither has "managed to deal with all their problems".
For working-class Rita, education makes her an outsider to her family and friends. "Yet," says Bramley, "she hasn't quite been able to establish a role in her new social context."
But Rita is a "real fighter, who's passionate about life and becomes able to make choices". And with Frank finally off to Australia, he also gets the chance "for a new start". He's very "affected by Rita's journey so maybe he'll also be able to discover himself again".
Hul Truck's Frank "is not as upper-class as in some previous productions", says Bramley. "He's a native southerner, middle-class, but a natural reader who's worked for his education - we didn't want him to be too distant in class terms from Rita."
The play is less about class difference than about how you use your opportunities in life. The set is Frank's study, with all the warmly lit clutter of an academic's room, and this is surrounded by "a visual representation of the city outside - tower blocks and roads". The contrast between the characters is emphasised by their clothes, with Frank in "sandy corduroy with elbow patches" and Rita "a more colourful, eccentric dresser, but without any stereotypical flesh and cleavage".
Holly Newman, who plays Rita, began by "using her own soft Mancunian accent, but in rehearsals we found that the lilt is different and we ended using a Scouse accent, which is how Willy Russell wrote the part". This accent is "much more comic" and suits the play.
Educating Rita is not only an affirmation that "you can fight for your own education - that you can learn", says Newman; it also "has a tragic undercurrent about things never being the same again - education changes your perspective". If you do decide to learn - to emphasise mind over feeling, "there's no going back, and you'll lose some things along the way". The question Russell leaves us with at the end of the play is that if for every gain there is also a loss, how do we assess the changes we make in our lives?
Aleks Sierz Educating Rita runs from October 5-28. Box office: 01482 323 638