Frank is a jaded English Literature lecturer who hides whisky bottles in his bookshelves. Rita is a Liverpudlian Open University student and hairdresser who is bursting with enthusiasm but finds it hard to complete essays that are longer than one sentence.
Liverpool-born Gillian Kearney, who appeared in the film version of Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine, plays Rita. She is superb at drawing all the laughs out of the script but also portraying Rita's journey from apparent scatter-brain to self-confident student.
Philip Bretherton is particularly good at conveying Frank's frustrations both with himself and with the barriers that get in the way of Rita fulfilling her potential. One of the most powerful scenes comes after the interval when Frank asks Rita to critique some of his own poetry. Despite Rita now being fluent in literary terminology, her enraptured praise of Frank's work does not elicit the response she might expect.
Philip Bretherton as Frank. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
I felt that, at times, that the interplay and exchange of dialogue between the actors was slightly slow. But this is inevitable in early performances and it did not mar the pleasure of seeing two accomplished performers brilliantly sustain a whole evening of laughs, interspersed with scenes of personal anguish.
The play was first produced in 1980. Julie Walters, who appeared in that production, went on to star with Michael Caine in the film adaptation – a tough combination for other actors to follow. Is Educating Rita still relevant today? Well, with many people having to choose between vocational training and an arts-based degree, or no degree at all, it's perhaps more topical than ever. The only thing that seems unrealistic is the amount of one-to-one time Rita has with her tutor.
Educating Rita, directed by Chris Honer, is the first play in the Library Theatre's last programme at the Lowry Centre. Over the last four years, it has staged productions in the Quays Theatre – the smaller venue in the building.
If you fancied a trip to Salford Quays to see the play, you could make a day of it by visiting the nearby Imperial War Museum, as well as booking a tour at the BBC and shopping and eating at the Lowry Outlet shopping complex.
The Library Theatre Company was originally resident at Manchester's Central Library, which is currently being refurbished. In 2015 the company will move to a newly created venue at First Street, along with the Cornerhouse arts centre. HOME, as the new social and cultural hub will be called, will include a theatre, studio space, gallery, cinema screens, a café bar and restaurant.
In the Quays bar at the Lowry, there is a new exhibition called The Spirit of Theatre. It features original drawings by artist and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) PhD student Simon Woolham. The exhibition is the result of a project run by MMU and the British Theatre Consortium, in which researchers and students interviewed Library Theatre Company audiences, actors and other staff.