Review – Educating Rita, Menier Chocolate Factory

Monday 29 March 2010

Who is she? Who is she? This whispered question echoed around the auditorium as the audience filed out of the Sunday matinee preview of Educating Rita, part of the Willy Russell season at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

“She” is Laura Dos Santos. Previous theatre credits include: We Will Be Gone (Camden People’s Theatre), Look Back In Anger (Jermyn Street), Stags And Hens (Royal Court Liverpool), On The Middle Day (Old Vic), In Your Hands (New End Theatre) and The Morris (Liverpool Everyman)*.

No, we were none the wiser either but it’s extremely unlikely anyone will be asking “Who is she?” for long. For Miss Dos Santos has seized the part of Rita from our memory of Julie Walters’ grasp and inhabited it so completely and confidently and with such comic and dramatic aplomb that no-one in the auditorium could do much more than ask to each other blankly “Who is she?” in disbelief that she isn’t already a household name.

Poor Larry Lamb – we all know who he is (Mick in Gavin & Stacey, Archie in EastEnders and, of course Matt Taylor in the classic 1981-1983 BBC TV series Triangle). He delivers a wonderfully convincing performance as Frank, Rita’s Open University tutor and ex-poet but we know who he is. But her. Who is she?

Educating Rita is about  a 29 year old Liverpool’s hairdresser’s determination to learn about art and literature and her journey away from her old life and into maxi-skirts. It is here delivered non-stop (apart from brief scene transitions) in 1 hour 40 minutes on a single, extremely well dressed tutor’s office set by Peter McKintosh.

And like Shirley Valentine, viewed by the Whingers the day before Rita, it stands the test of time and shows Russell’s writing to be sharp, funny, touching and tremendously entertaining although we suspect that Russell may have rewritten some of it specifically with the Whingers in mind. Rita’s attempts at criticism could save us an awful lot of time: on Forster’s Howards End (“It’s crapper than crap”), on T. S. Eliot (“his poems are dead long”) and on W.B. Yeats (“the wine lodge?”). And is Frank actually an amalgam of Andrew and Phil? “One is never bored or boring when drinking,” he announces; his reaction to an invitation from Rita: “God, I detest the theatre”. On the other hand, he does admonish Rita with the reproach that “in criticism there is no room for the subjective” which – if heeded – would make West End Whingers reviews short enough to publish through Twitter.

There was no detesting the theatre at this Sunday afternoon preview. Director Jeremy Sams keeps it all nicely compact and everything was very to the Whingers’ tastes. Our conclusion from this Willy Russell “season” is that he writes, warm, human. optimistic and – to the modern eye – probably rather old fashioned plays but as the Whingers don’t have a modern eye between them, that really wasn’t an impediment to enjoyment and they found  ER absorbing  and entertaining.

And having rested their tired old bottoms on them for a second time the Whingers can confirm that the Menier’s new benches are much more comfortable.

AND all this enthusiasm was without the aid of alcohol AND the Whingers even managed not to be bored (or too boring).**


*Dos Santos played Rita to Bill Nighy’s Frank in a radio version for the BBC last year.

** The Whingers were recovering from the previous night at the Show Off Piano Bar where they’d sustained themselves on copious Netherlander courage, knowing that the audience would demand a reprise of their now legendary and – dare we say – definitive “Oom Pah Pah”.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

17 Responses to “Review – Educating Rita, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. Sue Says:

    Though relegated to a footnote here, that Saturday Night reprise of Oom Pah Pah was indeed spectacular.

    As was Laura Dos Santos’s performance.

  2. A Clown Says:

    I was a bit meh about it all really. It paled badly by comparison to Shirley Valentine and I felt it showed its age a lot more.
    And I had to be told who Larry Lamb was!

  3. jmc Says:

    I once saw a production of this play in Basildon, with Ken Farrington (Billy Walker) as Frank. It didn’t make me want to ever see it again, but perhaps that’s the Basildon effect.

  4. J.A. Says:

    A superb production.

  5. joanna Says:

    WHY is this reveiwed before it has a proper press night???I thought the preveiws were for the production team to get it right BY the press night.???Hence the lower seating prices….

    • Dickie and Butch Says:

      Joanna – until the producers make a complaint about this specific review (i.e. they disagree with it – unlikely as it’s a positive review) then whether or not it has been reviewed before press night is not our concern. The WEW could and presumably have requested the permission to publish before press night. (Not an uncommon occurance when writing a positive review.)

      The WEW’s reviews are funny, entertaining and for the most part, and most importantly, honest. They reviewed what they saw on the night they saw it – other people might disagree with their opinion, but it is just that, an opinion. Accepted it is a preview, but most people do pay to see previews, and at best prices will be 15-20% less than opening night.

      This is a blog, perhaps if you are looking for a professional review of the production after opening night, I’d suggest checking out one of the top professional critics, or the useful summary of opening night reviews from top critics.

    • Joanna – Good question.

      The embargo only applies to people getting free tickets. If someone getting free tickets breaks the embargo they won’t get any more free tickets. It’s what is called a “gentleman’s agreement” so clearly has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Whingers.

      If one pays for one’s ticket one is entitled to say what one likes to anyone one likes whenever one likes. Obviously it is only courteous to mention that it is a preview. However…

      You are nearly right when you say that previews are for the production team to get it right – actually that is what rehearsals are for.

  6. joanna Says:

    Thanks for the responses.
    The only thing I disagree with, having taken all that you’ve said on board is the last comment.Whereby I agree that the rehearsals are obviously there for everyone to get a show up on it’s feet and see what works and what doesn’t,the previews are there for more objectivity.The previews are invaluable for a million reasons and are there predominantly for the production team to sort it out for the audience.To give them the best show possible.The audience also feel as though they’re part of a ‘work in progress’.
    It was a great review but I feel for those who are finding there way through previews(which for actors are about getting the right words in the right order and getting through it without collapsing in a quivering heap)and need to be freely allowed to get used to,and enjoy the audience and to take risks without fear of being publicly humiliated for it.

    • Sue Says:

      Interestingly, All That Chat, which is probably the main online forum for NY theatre (as well as an important forum for theatre elsewhere), takes the position that private invited dress rehearsals may not be reviewed but that any performance open to the paying public is fair game.

  7. joanna Says:

    Yes I’m sure that there are lots who think that’s the case but it is a fact that the entire staff at the theatre including the actors think differently.And it’s a shame that most people who review know that too.Quite simply,it won’t be a true reflection of the work that is being critisised.Generally speaking.

  8. Dickie and Butch Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments, Joanna in your 09:10am post.

    However, it is the producers who have shot themselves in the foot in this respect. A clearly unfinished Paint Never Dries© opened at full price in previews, with much of the choreography unfinished and the cast unrehearsed in places. This is based on general opinion. If producers are insisting on full price ticketing for a show which isn’t ready, then frankly they get what they deserve.

    I personally think any show at full price, preview or not, should be open for review by anybody (professional print or in the bloggosphere). My £70.00 should pay for the same quality of performance as the next person’s, regardless of when I see a show.

    The other point worth mentioning is the quality and length of rehearsal periods varies so drastically. Certain shows (Chicago, Kenwright musicals, “star” concerts) are notorious for being under-rehearsed, often only performing with a live band on debut night. Brooke Shields was the most recent “star” to openly criticise – I think she had four rehearsals before being pushed onto the stage.
    The better rehearsed the show, the less important the previews, basically.

    It is a running joke with actors who have worked for the same producer on several shows (‘Kenwrights Kids’ for instance) that the previews are part of the rehearsal period.

  9. joanna Says:

    yup-but the whole ridiculous pricing thing is a whole 3 days worth of discussion by itself….actually no it’s not.It takes 3 seconds. It’s just too much…
    And the rehearsal periods do vary depending on what funds are available.I guess at the end of the day,it’s the actors once again who seem to lose out as they’re the ones to be held up and critisised when A.people feel cheated by the ticket price and money has resulted in lack of enough preparation.
    However,having said that,no matter how well rehearsed a company is,the audience entirely changes the dynamic of the piece and changes need to be made to deal with this.

  10. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Interesting to see how this has become a discussion of the etiquette of reviewing previews.

    In short, Joanna, Andrew’s on the nose with this one. The wider picture is that the rise of the blogosphere has made this whole area more complex and problematic, but hasn’t altered the fundamentals.

    It seems to me that your postings implicitly place all the culpability on one side. What is one to do – even a professional reviewer bound by embargos – when confronted with the policies of a director such as, say, Trevor Nunn, who has frequently maximised preview periods so as to minimise the possible effect of reviews at all? THAT’S hardly behaving in good faith, is it? I mean, Trev’s hardly so diffident about the abilities of himself and his casts that he feels he needs to take so long to get it right, is he?

    Moreover, as I may have mentioned on this site before, a few years ago a Shunt production notched up 14 WEEKS of previews before letting reviewers in officially. So they were prepared to charge people – and, I think, to charge them full whack (although I don’t think that’s particularly relevant) – for all that time, but not prepared to be judged on what they were charging for? I don’t think that’s terribly reasonable. As far as I can see, if you’re making people pay to see your presentation, then you have to be prepared for them to have an opinion on what they’ve paid for and to express that opinion. As I say, the self-publication possibilities of the blogosphere don’t alter that principle.

    And you may say “it is a fact that the entire staff at the theatre” think it’s not on to review during previews, but a number of people demonstrate otherwise, notably the entire Broadway reviewing culture and, increasingly, the Whingers’ favourite producer Sonia Friedman, who has on a number of occasions invited the press, à la Broadway conventions, to attend any of a number of preview performances, with the “opening night” simply serving as an embargo date as regards publication of reviews.

    None of this is intended to signify that I don’t care about the problems you mention for practitioners (although it seems to me that many of those you mention are problems for rehearsals rather than performance) – just that they’re problems which aren’t located with audience/reviewers/media.

  11. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    And having seen both Willies now, I’d also like to second the Whingers’ appreciation of the new Menier seating. To paraphrase George M. Cohan: my arse thanks you, my back thanks you, my legs thank you, and I thank you.

  12. Ages behind the rest of you *as per usual* enjoyed this production a lot on Sunday and thought the two filled their roles beautifully, but why get rid of the interval? Seeing a play is a practical thing as well as an artistic one. It is nice to be able stretch ones legs, go to the loo, read bits in the programme that didn’t make sense before, get a drink, etc etc & etc. I can’t remember, but I’m guessing that originally the “second act” (quaintly expressed) opened with Rita’s return from summer school and the gap does make sense as far as the sequence of the story is concerned. For my own part, the bottle of Chardonnay consumed with our Wagamama lunch was hitting my snooze button after about 45 minutes so I would have liked the opportunity to walk it off!

    Lumber support at the Menier! Who’d a thunk it?

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