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Educating Rita At 40 With Stephen Tompkinson

We chat to Stephen Tompkinson

As Educating Rita comes to the Rose in March, Stephen Tompkinson talks to Tina Lofthouse about the play’s enduring appeal and why he hasn’t stopped acting since he left drama school

In 1980, the Warehouse Theatre staged the first production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. The tale follows a working-class hairdresser, who wants to better herself by studying literature at the Open University, and her jaded alcoholic lecturer, Frank. It explores class snobbery and prejudice but is ultimately about what two polar opposites can learn from each other. It was a huge hit, with Julie Walters and Mark Kingston in the lead roles, and was later turned into a film, again with Julie, this time opposite Michael Caine.

The tale is still wowing audiences four decades on. Last year, Stephen Tompkinson took on the role of Frank with Jessica Johnson as Rita. They toured the country to rave reviews and now for 2020, the play is back again on tour marking its 40-year anniversary. “People adore the idea of second chances and that it is never too late,” says Stephen on why the play has had such lasting appeal. “There was a movement in the 80s, when people who hadn’t done so great first time round would try again with the Open University, which gave them an opportunity to rediscover themselves. In Frank and Rita, we see two characters who inadvertently become very needful of each other and it is a lovely journey to watch.”

Stephen and Jessica will be back in rehearsals this month before going out on tour from February to May, stopping at the Rose from March 24-28 and Guildford 9-14. “It is nice to have a break and go back to it. You still find lots of new stuff. It is just a beautifully written play,” says Stephen. “The action all takes place in one room: the office in the university, and there is just the two of them on stage.”

With that though, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on the actors. “There is a lot of reliance on each other and we have to support each other very strongly. We end up mentally exhausted by the end of each show. It is a lot more draining than one expects but it’s a joy to perform.”

Stephen is best-known for his roles in hit TV shows such as DCI Banks, Drop the Dead Donkey, Wild At Heart and Ballykissangel. He has also garnered much praise for his stage roles, performing most recently in Art, as well as his film work with credits including Brassed Off. He pretty much has not stopped performing since his graduation from the Central School of Speech and Drama. What does he put that down to? “I have been lucky in the variety that I have had – I have been able to mix the mediums and the characters I have played, I have avoided being pigeonholed so I can dip my toe in a lot of waters,” he says.

His fans will all have a favourite character that he has played, but for Stephen it is whoever he is currently performing. “Each one that I am doing becomes a favourite so Frank is very close to me now. But in terms of the work I am most proud of, it is Brassed Off because of the impact on the people whose story we were telling.” The film portrays the struggles of a colliery band after the closure of the pit, reflecting what happened to mining communities in the 80s.

So which does he prefer doing, theatre, film or TV? “If you are doing one you are missing the others,” he says. “The most joyous thing about theatre though is that it is live. You never have the same audience twice, and with touring you are never in the same location so it is always very active. And you get to tell the story right from the beginning each time.”

Stephen is very much looking forward to coming to the Rose. “I have been a few times to see shows, including Brian Friel’s Translations. But I have never performed there and I am very excited about that. It is a lovely space and will work beautifully for our production.”

The play will keep him busy until May, and he also has other work in the pipeline, including a new series of The Bay for ITV and a new comedy series for BBC2 called The Other One. He is also busy supporting Alzheimer’s Research UK. “It is a cause close to my heart as I lost my father to Alzheimer’s,” he says.

It was his family that originally inspired him to become an actor. “They were my first audience,” says Stephen, who grew up in Stockton On Tees. “I wanted to make them laugh in the same way that they were laughing at Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise and Les Dawson.”

When he gets a day off, his perfect way to spend it is doing very little, he laughs. “It does depend on where I am in the country though. That is one advantage of touring in that you get to see places you haven’t been before so I will go and explore if the weather is nice. If not, I get cosied up and do very little.”

Educating Rita, 24-28 March www.rosetheatrekingston.org