You’d have to be something of a misogynist to believe that the theme of a woman’s struggle for fulfillment is outdated. In other words, Willy Russell’s small-cast, big-hearted hits “Educating Rita” and “Shirley Valentine,” unseen in London since their 1980s premieres, remain ripe for revival. Producing the two in rep, however, makes you realize they share the same plot: Woman with low self-esteem (and conveniently off-stage oppressive partner) embarks upon self-discovery. Seeing them together, alas, diminishes both.
In Jeremy Sams’ production for the Menier Chocolate Factory, “Educating Rita” (1980) emerges as the stronger. That’s partly due to Sams’ excising the intermission to keep audiences focused on Rita’s intellectual and emotional journey as she pursues her English literature degree. The chief reason, however, is casting. Nicely disheveled Larry Lamb has the requisite exhaustion as the failed poet cum alcoholic lecturer Frank. He’s engagingly sympathetic but falls short on the bitter self-disgust that should galvanize the (in)action. That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to pull focus from the piercing Rita of Laura Dos Santos.
From the second that she bursts into Frank’s study gabbling excuses, her fiercely focused energy burns up the stage. The role of Rita has always been a gift for fast-talking actors, a technique that scintillating newcomer Dos Santos has in
spades. Every laugh-aloud retorts lands.
In lesser hands, such whiplash comic timing might make Rita too brittle. But without ever descending into overt playing for sympathy, Dos Santos pins every laugh down with understated emotional truth.
This is a woman who shifts from self-deprecating hairdresser (she regards Rita Mae Brown’s self-discovery novel “Rubyfruit Jungle” as the height of literature) to empowered, educated woman. She’s assisted by Peter McKintosh’s succession of costumes that go from high-street to high-minded. But the real journey is the coupling of Russell’s writing and Dos Santos’ performance. Seeing her steady physical relaxation as Rita grows in understanding is like watching a flower blossom in time-lapse photography.
Elsewhere, the sense of time is uncertain. Tweaks to the script and props suggest a touch of updating. But why no reference to computers and Internet learning?
Contrivances are more obvious in Russell’s carefully heartwarming “Shirley Valentine.”
Forty-two-year-old housewife Shirley recounts how she was persuaded to leave her husband for a Greek holiday, where she discovers sex and her sense of self.
Russell’s unembarrassed conceit for the monologue structure is that Shirley has always addressed her kitchen wall. His attempts to disguise plot machinations are less open and less successful, not least in the inconsistent — and dated — depiction of “feminist” friend Jane.
Like all the off-stage characters, as expertly nailed by Meera Syal, Jane is a vivid presence. But lurching from Shirley’s best friend to the stereotypical man-hating feminist of the male imagination, Jane is revealed as more a plot convenience than a convincing character.
Even “Rubyfruit Jungle” is back too, albeit hidden this time in Shirley’s recollection of her son in the school nativity play from hell. It’s certainly funny but it pales beside the hysteria induced by the astonishingly similar story in Rita Mae Brown’s novel.
Returning too is Glen Walford, helmer of the original 1986 production. She only rarely encourages Syal to leave her comedienne roots behind. Little feels spontaneous. It’s like watching a stand-up deliver a host of distinct voices. The only points at which the emotional content really hits home is when Syal makes herself vulnerable by stopping and listening to herself.
Affectionate and ultimately affecting though these portraits are, it’s unlikely that either will join the Menier Chocolate Factory’s notable roster of major West End and Gotham transfers.