Monday, 30 November -0001

Educating Rita

This unforgettable opening night at Chichester was the stuff of nightmares, especially for Sir Lenny Henry

Written by Georgina Brown
Georgina-Brown-colour-176Like Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is about a working-class woman bettering herself with the encouragement of an older man. There are, of course, differences, but strikingly both Eliza and Rita outstrip their mentors in terms of emotional intelligence.

At the opening night of the current revival of Educating Rita in Chichester, Lashana Lynch’s gobby Scouser ’urdresser Rita proved her credentials earlier than the plot demands. For, poor old Lenny Henry – Sir Lenny now – who is playing Frank, Rita’s Open University tutor, got into a wretched tangle about whether literary criticism should be objective or subjective. Lynch’s Rita prattled on, without batting a heavily made-up eyelid. But Lenny had lost the plot – literally. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to the audience. ‘I’ve completely gone. Do you mind if I leave for just a second?’

Yikes. Actually, I had already stopped breathing when he said subjective for what felt like the tenth time. In fact, I had been anxious from the get-go, because Henry himself seemed uncertain, not fully inhabiting the part of the shambolic Frank as he padded around his study, not just searching for whisky bottles hidden behind Ibsen and Eliot, but also reaching for his words.

A few minutes later, he returned to the stage, word-perfect, but sagging as surely as Frank’s woolly cardies. His recovery, however, was better than mine. When an actor steps out of character, the spell is broken, and one’s confidence is lost.

The miracle is that it happens so rarely. An actor’s job is to remember the words, be in the right place at the right time, a feat of memory I shall always be in awe of. But while I have huge admiration for Henry for getting through the performance, losing myself in the drama was, that night, impossible. Nevertheless, Lynch’s Rita shone brightly, all but eclipsing Henry’s Frank as he descends into drink, disillusion and self-loathing as his protégée gradually slips from his grasp.

Michael Buffong’s production has the good idea of giving Rita almost as many wig and costume changes as Kristin Scott Thomas’s HM the Queen in The Audience as Rita experiments with various new identities. She swaps garish ensembles with high heels for studenty dungarees and trainers, a froth of tight curls for groovy braids. She finally finds her equilibrium in elegant trousers, a long coat and a classy short cut.

Lynch emerges as a fresh new talent. But it was a night – and a knight – made unforgettable for being the stuff of nightmares.

Until 25 July at Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex: 01243-781312,

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