Who is Teaching What to Whom?

 By Marinell Haegelin

Educating Rita by Willy Russell at English Theatre with Nicholas Humphrey directing

 Rita’s a swell Liverpudlian with an itch to change. Not like her customers at the hair salon; no, Rita knows to change it’s really gotta’ be from the inside out. Twenty-six and married, she daringly decides to take a course at the Open University in preparation for sitting exams in English Literature. When she enters the Professor’s office, her honest and appraising life approach and quirky personality is a breath of fresh air for the middle-age Frank. He’s only tutoring to pay for drink. Initially, they ram heads: he, about bad use of the English language, and she, “walking around looking like an ol’ scruff bag.” Rita’s working class, where “there’s more culture in yogurt” while cynical Frank hasn’t written a poem in years. Still, impressed by his cultured bohemian and the University, she’s sure education will bring more in confidence, and future endeavors. Rita’s determination undermines Frank’s disenchantment with teaching and life. Time passes; Frank’s tutelage is adaptable and she works hard; discussions become more evenly balanced. Meeting after the summer break—Frank, Europe, and Rita, London—her transformations and academic prowess couldn’t be more obvious. What Franks sees though, is a reflection of the pseudo-academia culture he’s sick of. Frank’s tumble changes everything, just as his assessment and a classmate’s actions open Rita’s eyes. They realize the limitless possibility of choice is knowledge worth having and sharing.


The English dramatist, composer, and lyricist Willy Russell draws on his background—life experiences—in his plays. Educating Rita (1980), his second successful play is semi-autobiographical; he wrote the screenplay for the 1983 film with Michael Caine and Julie Walters who received an Oscar® nomination. Fluctuating between musicals, theatre, and television, Russell is best known for Shirley Valentine (1986), Blood Brothers (1983), Our Day Out (aired in 1977), and One Summer (first episode aired in 1983). The Wrong Boy is his first novel and was published in 2000.


The play is dialogue intensive, posing a challenge for the two actors. Some lines repeat during the play in different places making concentration, timing, and delivery crucial. Guest director Nicholas Humphrey admits he drove his actors, they concur it was daunting. But, pitch two strong actors together with a clear vision and the outcome is engrossing. Grace Alexander-Scott transforms before our eyes with such finesse; Tom Shoesmith is the epitome of the scholarly, soured professional: together they hold us spellbound. Wonderful casting! Mathias Wardeck’s set is minimally captivating. The breaks in scenes are filled with what director Humphrey describes as “soundscapes”: they set the mood, and give information into Rita’s changing psychological landscape so pay attention. Actors in ETHs previous production, No Dinner For Sinners, recorded the “soundscape” voiceovers. Rita’s aspiration is a clear lesson we can all benefit from. Since 1976 the English Theatre has consistently presented classic and groundbreaking plays in English, in Hamburg. They continue this tradition to enthral and entertain audiences.


EDUCATING RITA premiered February 18 and runs until April 6, 2016. The final play of the season is DANGEROUS OBSESSION, a spellbinding thriller by N.J. Crisp. It premieres on April 28, 2016 through June 25, 2016.


Evening and matinee performances; tickets available at the theatre or online: The English Theatre of Hamburg, Lerchenfeld 14, 22081 Hamburg, Tel: 040-227 70 89: U-Bahn Mundsburg.