Glasgow, Royal Theatre
Four Sterne Stars
When he wrote his Pygmalion for the Thatcher Era 40 years ago, Willy Russell created the most adorable monster. Russell’s play remains a clever and witty inspiration even in the middle ages, when hairdresser Rita’s jump from the working class to boozy Open University lecturer Frank’s book-lined thesis becomes a beacon of hope.
After all, with ideas beyond their station, Rita is the vibrant and brave epitome of a generation of ordinary individuals. She manages to break into a world of books and academic pursuits, like the boldest of rebels, where the only future is an unhappy marriage and a dull career.
Jessica Johnson’s Rita is a spirited human dynamo in pursuit of enlightenment in Max Roberts’ revival of a production first shown at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, rekindling the fire in Frank to the point that the two inadvertently become kindred spirits. In a platonic love story where both sides open each other up to infinite possibilities beyond their destinies, what follows is a bittersweet tale of romantic equals.
As she transfers from an evidently semi-priced rail of sweaters to the college uniform trendy of dungarees and bandanas, Rita’s egalitarian transition is marked by Sam Newlands’ costumes. On the other side, Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank stays permanently corduroyed and unironed.
Frank throws Rita’s way, like the finest novels, but knowledge and experience are double-edged swords. In particular, Tompkinson’s depiction is steeped in ennui, beyond Frank’s avuncular attitude toward Rita, whose own attainment of wisdom happens in the loss of their mutual contact almost too quickly.
In this sense, a sorrow beyond surface humor pervades as Rita learns to travel. Four decades after their first appearance, one wonders what Rita and Frank did next, with everything that has happened in the world. The great learning had already started in earnest wherever they landed.