By Willy Russell
Cast: Sarah Malone, Alex Lanham
It’s a tough call; this two-hander is acted on the one set throughout and action is largely restricted to moving between desks, to a window or easy chair. Fortunately the actors are well up to the challenge and maintain interest, aided by Willy Russell’s witty script. The two actors seem relatively inexperienced, compared with long lists of credits in most productions’ program notes but they do come up trumps. OK, Michael Caine and Julie Walters set a high bar and it helps if the passage of time since watching their movie version has blurred memories, for this is on a different strata. But considering there’s little respite for either actor, they manage the dense text and continual exposure almost flawlessly.
Rita (Sarah Malone) is a 26-year old hairdresser who yearns for something more in life “I want to discover meself” and decides to take a course in Literature at Open University. Frank has allowed himself to be talked into teaching at the Open University because he needs the money to fund his drinking the university has put him on notice to be discreet so bottles are craftily hidden behind the books that line his study walls. Rita arrives with her tough talking if high pitched, heavily accented Liverpudlian accent, which is well maintained, though sometimes a little too thick to catch all her words. (Malone is herself English and catches the nuances securely.) She’s a smoker and they’re soon sharing vices, swapping cigarettes for whiskey.
Frank’s wife has left him and he’s living with a former student, an obsessive cook, for whom he has little sympathy or compatibility. (“You pop off and put your head in an oven” and “I like my lamb done to the point of abuse.”)
A major theme is how people handle change. Frank begins in the position of power through his status and education, albeit threatened by his drinking and insecurity as a poet. Rita develops from the simplistic naïf with defensive crossed arms and gawky posture into assured, well-read and definitely intelligent confidence, eventually declaring: “I don’t need you.” Frank’s insecurity and self-doubt increase in their swapped positions until he declares that he will change his name to Mary Shelley for he has created a “Frankenstein”.
Malone deftly captures the hunger for learning and the riches of intellectual life, the rough diamond who tells it straight with perceptive insights. Perhaps she projects less convincingly the pain of her husband Denny’s throwing her out for going back on the pill and aiming beyond her station in life. Yet her transition from hard-nosed, brassy hairdresser to sophistication, assurance and strength is convincing, as she out-wits and out-thinks her disintegrating teacher and mentor.
The role of Frank offers less opportunity for such nuance; he’s largely contained behind his desk, impatiently flicking at assignments, or retrieving yet another bottle from behind the book. Inevitably a male lead has fewer costume changes out of the bookish tweed jackets, unlike the frequent ingenious additions and subtractions to Rita’s gear (costume credits to Sacha Scofield and Jasmin Erdelt). In the second act he gets to fall about in drunken excesses then berate and beg but the range of character hardly develops as wondrously as does his Pygmalian creature. Thus it’s no criticism of Lanham’s performance that he is out-shined by Malone, whose character has multi-faceted scope to soak up all direction. Her character can also reveal character change by toning her voice; having been told “there’s not a lot of point discussing beautiful literature if you have an ugly voice,” Rita goes through the transition from “bein’ an ‘alf-cast; I can’t talk the language” into more sophisticated mellifluous tones.
Direction by Graham McKenzie makes the best of the play’s inherent staging and interactive limitations, with pacing generally well managed. While essentially a comedy, with many laugh-out-loud lines in the witty text, there are layers of thought-provoking meaning which keep audiences thinking about the value of education and how many take it for granted; about often unconscious class distinctions still prevalent amongst the have and have-nots.
Do we see and feel any real chemistry between the characters? While not in the Maine/Walters class, there is enough genuine relationship to hold our interest. As well as fascination for Rita’s developing mind, Frank is lonely enough to lust after her body and to despair as she becomes caught up with her intellectual friends. We’re thinking, “Surely they won’t succumb to a happy ending relationship?” But no. After Frank finally exasperates the university heavies sufficiently to sack him (or its equivalent, a sentence of two years in Australia, which he supposes “must be a Paradise for the likes of me for they even named a favourite drink after a writer ‘Forster’”), Russell’s ending cleverly plays on such happy-ending expectations. As Rita says, “All I’ve ever done is take from you, I’ve never given anything in return. I’m going to take years off your life” the salivating Frank is hustled into a chair and given a haircut.
It’s the perfect light touch to end a multi-layered text and performance with a satisfying chuckle.
Directed by Graham McKenzie
Playing September 23 October 14, Wednesday Saturday at 8pm, Sunday matinee 2pm)
Duration: 100 minutes, 20-minute interval