STEPHEN Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson have an association with Educating Rita as long as Rita’s degree course.
“We started doing this play about three years ago, and it’s since had various outings trying to complete the 40th anniversary production,” says Stephen, as they head to York Theatre Royal on Tuesday. “It’s closer to the 42nd anniversary now!”
Tompkinson, star of DCI Banks, Wild At Heart, Drop The Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel, plays grizzled university tutor Frank, opposite Johnson’s lippy hairdresser Rita in Willy Russell’s comedy two-hander, in a Theatre by the Lake production now being toured by producer David Pugh under the direction of Newcastle Live Theatre director emeritus Max Roberts.
“I saw Jess in Goth Weekend at the Live Theatre and was blown away by her,” says Stockton-on-Tees actor Tompkinson.
Jessica already had played Rita in a 2017 production of Educating Rita at the Gala Theatre, Durham. “But I didn’t get a long run at it and when I said I’d love to do it for longer, I suggested Stephen would make a really good Frank,” she recalls.
The partnership was duly formed and the stop-start progress began as Covid spread its claw. “It stopped at the Grand Theatre at Blackpool, but we were lucky that the next place we could do was outdoors at the Minack Theatre on the Cornish cliffs [at Porthcurno, Penzance] last summer,” says Stephen.
“It was the most incredible place for the set of a teacher’s office in a northern university, against the amazing backdrop of double rainbows and dolphins in the sea.
“They’re a very hardy audience down there! We performed through two storms and the tech crew couldn’t see us at all at one point!”
Jessica adds to the memories: “It was so cold, I was wearing every piece of costume I had for one scene!”
When Educating Rita resumed, it stopped again after only a week at Kingston as lockdown returned. Still, Jessica was no stranger to a short burst of performances after the Gala Theatre production in 2017. “We did a week of shows there after two weeks of rehearsals,” she says. “It was a north-eastern version that we did, and the up-to-date one…
… “But it remains a universal story, wherever you set it,” says Stephen. “Everyone understands it, and Will Russell is a hero for working-class women. Despite the play being set in the world of academia, he makes it very accessible.”
Jessica rejoins: “I’ve been on an incredible journey with Rita. I first read it when I was 13/14 and I’ve used Better Song To Sing from the play for auditions. Rita’s been with me for a long time and she grows as she stays with me.”
Tompkinson and Johnson have clocked up almost 250 performances together, now touring a more condensed version with no interval for Covid-safety reasons. “It makes the play more intense, focusing even more on the relationship in the shorter text,” says Stephen.
“Both Jess and I and Max Roberts, our director, put forward suggestions for cuts, and we’ve cut out 20 minutes as well as the interval.”
Has the play changed in its impact over more than 40 years on stage? “Audiences are very woke to social issues that were quite new in 1979,” says Stephen. “Willy Russell said to us that ‘it’s the audience that’s changed in the 40 years, not the play’s themes’. Making the play shorter has just made it more intense.”
Stephen and Jessica admit to being a “little star struck” when working with Russell, the writer of such hits as Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and Our Day Out.
“He’s a lot cleverer than people give him credit for. When you go into the text of Educating Rita, look at the book choices he makes, the literary references. They are so apt,” says Stephen. “There’s the link between the story and that classic tragedian thing of ignoring your own faults, with Frank not seeing his.
“But it’s not just Russell who’s undervalued. Plaudits rarely go to comedic writers and yet most actors will tell you it’s much harder to make people laugh.”
Jessica takes the point further: “Rita really wanted to get out of her working-class drudgery, to escape to something more beautiful, and Russell captures that beautifully with his writing and the character he created in Rita.”
Stephen rejoins: “They say, always write about what you know, and Willy is both these characters in Educating Rita: they are two halves of Willy Russell, and that’s why audiences root for the relationship, rather than taking sides, in that they are both horrible at times, but they both go on beautiful journeys.”
Just as Jessica and Stephen sing Willy Russell’s praises, so he has paid them the ultimate compliment. “Willy came up after the first night and said, ‘Thank you for giving me my play back,” reveals Tompkinson.
What better recommendation could there be for seeing next week’s run in York.
Educating Rita runs in York Theatre Royal’s Summer Of Love season, August 31 to September 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
What’s coming up for Jessica Johnson after she makes her York Theatre Royal debut?
“I’ve got a part in the new series of Vera,” she says, as the ITV crime drama returns from August 29. Look out for Episode 3.
What’s in the pipeline for Stephen Tompkinson after the Educating Rita tour ends in Newcastle on September 19?
“I’ll be playing a character called Warnock in Sherwood, the new James Graham six-part drama for BBC1. It’s a modern piece, dealing with the aftermath of the 1984 Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire [where Graham was born].
Tompkinson haunted the big screen in 1996 as a skint miner on strike turned hapless, suicidal clown in York writer-director Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off.
“It’s something that’s very close to my heart,” he says, as he mines the subject matter for a second time.
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