Fresh from their acclaimed starring roles in the revival of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita in 2019, Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson will reunite for the special 40th anniversary production to tour the UK in 2020. It will bring back the electric on-stage partnership of Jessica as Susan "Rita" White, the Liverpudlian hairdresser striving for a better life at the Open University, opposite Stephen as her frustrated professor Frank Bryant who is battling his own demons. The production won rave reviews across the country following its premiere at Theatre By The Lake in Keswick in April 2019. It was a chance discussion between the two actors about their mutual love for the play that was the spark for the revival - winning the support of producer David Pugh and director Max Roberts. So to reprise their roles in the 40th year since Educating Rita was first performed on stage is a special moment for both.
Stephen said: “Last year was such a great success and having the chance to go on and do it when it’s officially the 40th anniversary tour is a lovely bonus.“ We set out to try and remind people what a brilliant play Willy wrote and it’s still so incredibly relevant today. It’s only by performing that and letting people hear his words that you see it’s kind of like a long-lost friend.”
Writer Willy was heavily involved in the rehearsals for the production, and gave his ringing endorsement after the opening night. Stephen, 54, recalls: “Willy came backstage after the first night and said: “Thank you for giving me my play back”. That was just wonderful, because it was what we were trying to achieve, not just make it a star vehicle for one member of the company which has often been the case for some productions.“ It’s a massively popular play - I think people just needed to be reminded of that. The reviews have been amazing so we’re delighted to be taking it out again.”
For Jessica, the character of Rita has particular resonance. Like Rita, she also returned to university education as a mature student. Jessica, 38, said: “I was 23, 24 when I went to university. For me, life kept getting in the way of university! Some people are ready for studying at different times. Education was not for me at 14, 15, but when I got to 23 I was ready for it.” Jessica also hails the play a personal inspiration, as it has been to so many people. She said: “From a very young age when I read Educating Rita, it gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life.“ I felt that connection with her, the class struggle, the social struggle, the want for something better - that’s something I could get behind and I hope that I bring that to the part.”
Reviews for the 2019 production, set in the play’s original time of 1980, picked up on just how relevant the themes of the play remain today, 40 years on. Sunderland-raised Jessica says: “It’s a discussion we’re still having now, about opportunities for young people and the disparity of wealth. “ I’m a working class girl and there were certain opportunities not available to me, because of where I came from and I get that with Rita.“
There’s this want, this need, this search for something more out of life. It does resonate.“ I have two teenagers and they want more from life as well. It’s so relevant especially for young people coming to see the play, they’ve got that fight and spirit of Rita.” The new 40th anniversary production opened on 4th February 2020 at the Oxford Playhouse before heading on tour across the UK.
Stephen, who is known and loved across the nation for his time in long-running TV dramas including Ballykissangel, Wild at Heart and DCI Banks, has relished getting inside the head of Frank. Stephen said: “Frank is terribly disappointed in life, he’s not been a great success at being a poet, he’s disappointed in the way the curriculum dictates how he teaches. There’s nothing of him in there, there’s no passion. So to meet this woman with so much passion, he almost wants to run away. She offers him a little bit of a lifeline, and he’s doing the same for her. There is definitely an attraction for him. “
It’s a brilliantly written play, and a universal story of two lost souls, mismatched people in terms of character and background who meet at the right time to help each other in life.” Jessica said: “It’s definitely a love story, they definitely care for each other, she loves him for giving her the opportunities.”
(Article Credit: Dianne Bourne)