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Educating Rita Rose Theatre

Educating Rita at the Rose

Educating Rita at the Rose

Jessica Johnson on her love for the role of Rita and her joy at being back on stage

“It will be hugely emotional when we step out onto the stage at the Rose,” says Jessica Johnson. “I’m nervous but also incredibly excited.”

The play was scheduled to come to Kingston back in March but then the world was turned upside down by the pandemic and theatres across the country had to shut their doors. But it is set to return, with Stephen Tompkinson as Frank, running at the Rose from 28 October to 14 November, with a socially-distanced audience and all the Covid safety measures in place. Handily, the two stars are also partners and live together so they don’t need to socially distance.

The tour was the second for the acclaimed play starring Jessica with Stephen and was celebrating 40 years since Willy Russell first wrote the play about the relationship between hairdresser Rita, who wants to better herself and enrols on an Open University course, and her alcoholic tutor Frank.

“We were in the middle of the tour when the lockdown came in. We were just so upset and shocked. It was so unexpected,” says Jessica. For Jessica, who is from the North East, it was doubly hard with Rita being her favourite role of all time, having first performed it at school. “It was the first time I’d read something where I could hear my voice and identity with what they were saying.”

“Educating Rita is such a universal story. And it has even become an expression and a hashtag when people say they are ‘doing a Rita’.”

The play was initially commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and played at the Warehouse Theatre in 1980, starring Julie Walters and Mark Kingston. Julie reprised her role in the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film opposite Michael Caine. “Julie set the bar really high and you do feel that pressure. But Rita is a pleasure to play and Willy’s writing is incredible.”

It was able to resume briefly in the summer at the open-air clifftop Minack Theatre in Cornwall. It was an incredible – and unusual – experience for the actors. “We were dealing with the elements, we had storms, and we were even upstaged at one point by a rainbow and dolphins swimming past!”

So this will be their first time back on a stage indoors. The play is an intimate one with just the two actors on stage. And the audience will of course, be socially distanced. Were they any special considerations in terms of how they get the play across in this new atmosphere? “It is an unknown for us. But I trust us as actors and I trust the audience. I think theatre-goers are chomping at the bit and looking forward to seeing a play live again.”

Jessica is confident about the future for the arts. “When the virus goes away, and it will, I think we will have a lot of new writing about the cultural changes we are seeing around the world such as Black Lives Matter, LGBT and women’s rights. These big changes only happen every few decades. This is exciting.” “And the industry is picking up again. If anyone can come up with creative solutions to a crisis, it is the creative industry.”

Educating Rita, Rose Theatre Kingston, 28 October – 14 November

Read our interview with Stephen on playing Frank.