Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre
In our celebrity-sated, fifteen-minutes-of-fame fixated world, is education still seen as the road to personal fulfilment and life-changing cultural freedom ?
Rita first burst into Frank's study thirty-five years ago. Wisely, this first-rate revival, directed by Patrick Sandford for Made in Colchester, sets the action in the 80s, without ever making it a period piece.
Key to the drama, and to Frank's complex character, is Juliet Shillingford's superbly designed set. The kind you feel tempted to nip up on stage to explore. Shelves tower upwards, crammed with books and random bric-a-brac: here's a naked fiddle reclining on the phone books. And presiding over the action, over-sized photos of the dead white men who people Frank's literary life: an avuncular Eliot, a youthful, thoughtful, Forster. A Bronte obscured on the back of the door. And looming over it all, Rubens' Samson and Delilah, foreshadowing the neat tonsorial twist at the end of the play.
Nakedly erotic, of course, and the sexual chemistry between the student and her mentor is intriguingly explored here – the affair they never have, Innocence and Experience, the broken analogy, the Gauloises she'll never smoke – in characterizations as satisfying as any I've seen in these roles.
Samantha Robinson is the young hairdresser who “wants to understand everything”. We watch in wonder as she blossoms under the influence of literature and the student life, her foot trembling with excitement, one revelation after another lighting up her eager features. Telling costume changes reflect her journey from frustrated wife to fulfilled graduate – the little black number Frank pathetically offers her yet another blow to their failed physical relationship.
Dougal Lee is a brilliant Frank – totally convincing as the geriatric hippy, poet and piss-artist who reluctantly takes on an unknown Open University student to fund his boozing. His inebriated return from the lecture hall is masterly; gloriously, physically drunk, but vulnerable and tragic too.
The dialogue crackles along, the changing seasons suggested by falling leaves, a flurry of snow, and, more inventively, by the one-bar fire and the lighting of the many anglepoise lamps, or the fan whirring to life behind the Remington.
The production, like the set, is crammed with delightful detail – in the course of a few seconds, Rita has amended her name on the enrolment, and Frank has deliberately put down the un-put-downable Rita Mae Brown.
We leave our heroine with all her options open, and her life before her. She'll be in her sixties now, perhaps running an organic café-cum-bookshop on Lark Lane. Does she wonder about the next generation of Ritas, desperate for better songs to sing. She suspects, sadly, that the Open University would be the last place they'd look ...this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews