Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson will star in a new production of Willy Russell’s award-winning play Educating Rita at York Theatre Royal.
Performances will take place from Tuesday 31 August to Saturday 4 September.
Stephen Tompkinson will play university tutor Frank Bryant, with Jessica Johnson playing the titular Rita.
Stephen is a familiar face on our screens with some of his best-known TV credits being DCI Banks, Wild at Heart, and Drop the Dead Donkey.
Jessica has previously played Rita at the Gala Theatre in Durham in 2017, as well as credits in theatre and TV.
The play is directed by Max Roberts with set and costume designs by Patrick Connellan, lighting design by Drummond Orr and sound design by David Flynn.
It was a serendipitous meeting between the two actors that was the spark for bringing this production to life when they were both performing at Live Theatre in Newcastle.
Stephen then broached the idea with producer David Pugh of doing something with Educating Rita. David loved the idea, and brought together Jessica and Stephen for a performance of the play in a hotel room in Bath in front of playwright Willy Russell’s daughter Rachel – no pressure there!
But fortunately the rest was history.
Olivier and Tony-award winning producer David Pugh said: “Rita is the most extraordinary character – she wanted to change and learn so much and that’s everything we are going through at the moment, to adapt to the world as it is now.
“What we know is that Educating Rita gives you a great night out at the theatre and that’s the best any of us can hope for.”
For more information and to book your tickets, please visit the York Theatre Royal website.
Q&A with Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson
How did this production come about?
JJ: We crossed paths and got chatting, and I just said to Stephen I thought he would make an amazing Frank. I had just done a short run of Educating Rita in Durham at the Gala Theatre, and was telling Stephen how I’d love to get a longer run at this incredible role.
ST: It transpired it’s a play we’ve both loved for many, many years. So I went away and re-read the play, which I had been reading since I was 15. In fact a school friend and I used to rehearse it in my dad’s garage together, but of course I was way too young for the role back then. But re-reading the play I realised I’m now the right age to play Frank which was a little bit scary to begin with.
We had a rather nervous performance of the play in a hotel room, to see if there were any legs in it and fortunately we passed with flying colours.
What was it like working with playwright Willy Russell?
ST: We can’t believe how fortunate we’ve been that Willy still has such interest in a play that he wrote 40 years ago, and in this production. To have Willy there at every stage of rehearsal, that’s truly inspirational and what will hopefully make this production stand apart. It’s his play, so we couldn’t look for more inspiration than that.
JJ: To get his insight in the room with us, it’s a real privilege. I’ve devoured all of his plays, so to get his insight in the character he wrote is incredible. He’s been a massive influence for so many generations.
Do you relate to the play?
JJ: 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.
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.
Rita has a Liverpudlian accent – how was taking that on?
JJ: I’m fine with the Liverpool accent, I don’t have a massive backlog of accents, but Liverpool I can do! It’s not dissimilar from my own accent, being from Sunderland, so it’s a similar heritage with Irish immigration and the docks. The rhythm and the delivery is the same.
What was it like getting into the heads of these characters?
ST: 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.
JJ: It’s definitely a love story, they definitely care for each other, she loves him for giving her the opportunities.
How are you preparing for some of the famous scenes in the play – such as Frank’s drunken descent?
ST: I’m doing it by not drinking in real life. So it will definitely all be acting. He does drink a lot, and he’s been told to hide the obvious signs – he hides the bottles everywhere. He’s in a bit of decline. It’s mapping the descent. It’s something I’m looking forward to, it will be a challenge.
What can audiences expect from this production?
ST: Julie Walters wasn’t known to the majority of the audience then, and it was that surprise value that made it work, and I think Jess does that as well.
As soon as I saw Jess on stage I knew there was a uniqueness she had, and I think it will be a beautiful surprise for the audience when Rita breezes into everybody’s life.