Review: ‘Educating Rita’ stands a little too firmly on sociological soapbox

Review: ‘Educating Rita’ stands a little too firmly on sociological soapbox
Meghan Anrews, as Rita, leans forward, imparting her eagerness to learn from her tutor Frank, played by Bjorn Johnson, in the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Educating Rita.” Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley

SOLANA BEACH — The entire play takes place in one location: a cluttered office space filled with books, a desk, a couple of chairs, a filing cabinet, a lamp, a fireplace, and two Gothic-style windows. 

In this one room at an unspecified university in Britain, a failed-poet-turned-literature-professor encounters a brassy hairdresser in an abrupt clash of class status and education in the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Educating Rita.”

But despite the sincere efforts by the production’s performers, design team and crew, playwright Willy Russell’s script hinders the show by pushing too many social themes on underdeveloped characters.

In the play, heavy-drinking university professor Frank agrees to tutor a cheeky hair stylist named Rita, who is eager for an education to gain greater opportunities in her life.

Meghan Andrews, who plays Rita, lights up the stage with an earnestness to learn, in Rita’s words, “everything.” As Rita’s hair and clothes gain sophistication, Andrews crafts the way Rita speaks and moves, embodying the transition of a woman learning to find herself in the midst of E.M. Foster and Shakespeare.

Bjorn Johnson’s portrayal of Frank honestly embraces the struggle of a forlorn academic working to overcome professional and personal failure. The audience can almost smell the alcohol on Frank’s breath and feel his attachment to his attractive, young pupil in the way that he slurps his drinks and gazes at Rita.

Credit should be given to sound designer Chris Luessmann who chose classical covers of British rock hits to intersect each interaction, effectively highlighting Rita and Frank’s drastically different backgrounds.

Yet even a lively burst of Queen’s “Killer Queen” between scenes was not enough to lighten the load of social issues thrown in by Russell’s writing of this supposed comedy.

With long, desperate monologues, Russell’s script burdens his two characters with a jumble of grand themes ranging from education opportunities for the underprivileged to social standing. Furthermore, the audience is given limited insight into each character’s lives outside of the office, making Rita and Frank rather two-dimensional.

Though humorous one-liners liter each scene, the constant struggles for each character makes it difficult to call the play a “comedy.”

As a result, “Educating Rita” will entertain playgoers but leave them wanting for characters, not stereotypes, to carry the two-person show.

“Educating Rita” is playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through Feb. 3. Ticket information and show times can be found at the theatre at 987 Loma Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, during box office hours or online at northcoastrep.org.

 

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