Educating Rita At 40 With Stephen Tompkinson

We chat to Stephen Tompkinson

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

***UPDATE: Educating Rita returns to the Rose, 17 to 21 August 2021!***

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 the play is back again to mark 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 at the Rose from 28 October – 14 November. “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.”

This is an updated article, which was published when the play was originally scheduled to run in March. Sadly, it was postponed due to the pandemic but we’re delighted it will run this autumn, from 28 October – 14 November

Educating Rita