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”.