Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Willy Russell spawned a very charming monster when he wrote his Pygmalion for the Thatcher age forty years ago. As it outsmarts its way into middle-age, Russell’s play remains a wise and witty inspiration, as working class hairdresser Rita’s leap into boozy Open University lecturer Frank’s book-lined study becomes a beacon of hope.
In Rita, after all, is the bright and brassy epitome of a generation of common people with ideas beyond their station. Like the gobbiest of revolutionaries, she manages to gatecrash a world of books and intellectual aspiration, where an unhappy marriage and a job that bores her were previously the only future on offer.
In Max Roberts’ revival of a production first seen at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Jessica Johnson’s Rita is a vivacious human dynamo in search of enlightenment, who reignites a fire in Frank enough for them to become accidental kindred spirits. What follows is a bittersweet tale of intimate equals in a platonic love story in which both parties open each other up to endless possibilities beyond their lot.
Rita’s gradual transformation is marked by Sam Newlands’ costumes, as she moves from what looks like half-price rail of jumpers to the student uniform chic of dungarees and head-scarf. Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank, meanwhile, remains permanently corduroyed and terminally unironed.
Like the best books Frank throws Rita’s way, however, wisdom and experience are double-edged swords. Tompkinson’s performance in particular is laced with ennui beyond Frank’s avuncular attitude towards Rita, whose own getting of wisdom happens almost too fast in the loss of her common touch.
In this sense, a sadness pervades beyond the surface humour as Rita learns to fly. Four decades on since they first appeared, with everything that’s happened in the world, one wonders what Rita and Frank did next. Wherever they ended up, the great learning had already begun in earnest.
The Herald, February 25th 2020