Educating Rita/ Shirley Valentine

Willy Russell's small-cast, big-hearted hits remain ripe for revival.

With:
Rita - Laura Dos Santos Frank - Larry Lamb Shirley - Meera Syal

You’d have to be something of a misogynist to believe that the theme of a woman’s struggle for fulfillment is outdated.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.

Educating Rita/ Shirley Valentine

Menier Chocolate Factory; London;163 seats; £25 top

Production: A Menier Chocolate Factory presentation of two plays by Willy Russell. "Educating Rita" Directed by Jeremy Sams.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Paul Anderson; sound, David Ogilvy; production stage manager, Gareth Weeks. Opened, reviewed Apr. 8, 2010. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN. "Shirley Valentine" Directed by Glen Walford. Production stage manager, Kate Margretts. Other production credits as above. Running time: 2 HOURS

Cast: Rita - Laura Dos Santos Frank - Larry Lamb Shirley - Meera Syal

More Legit

  • Jagged Little Pill review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Jagged Little Pill'

    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 […]

  • Mean Girls Tina Fey

    Stagecraft Podcast: Tina Fey on Comedy, Broadway and 'Mean Girls'

    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 […]

  • COLIN CALLENDER STRICTLY BUSINESS Podcast

    Strictly Business Podcast: Colin Callender on 'Cursed Child' and Navigating Co-Productions

    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 […]

  • Patricia Morison Dead: 'Kiss Me Kate'

    Patricia Morison, Stage Star of 'Kiss Me, Kate,' Dies at 103

    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 […]

  • Prince Harry Meghan Markle

    Who's on the Royal Wedding Guest List?

    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 […]

  • In the Heights

    'In the Heights': Warner Bros. Wins Movie Rights to Lin-Manuel Miranda's Musical

    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 […]

  • School of Rock

    'School of Rock' Captures the Heart and Soul of Messy Adolescence

    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 […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content