Educating Rita

Holly Lewis and Scott Bellis Credit: Murray Mitchell
Holly Lewis and Scott Bellis
Credit: Murray Mitchell

At the Arts Club Granville Island Stage until October 25, 2014

Posted October 2, 2014

Director Sarah Rodgers must have been pulling her hair trying to secure a leading man in time for opening night of Educating Rita. For good reason, the first actor she cast had to bow out; so did the second but now it was within days of the previews. Scott Bellis played the part in Sagebrush Theatre’s production last season but he starts rehearsal on October 4 for St. Joan. With a tiny window of availability and only four days of rehearsal, Bellis stepped bravely up to the plate. Equally brave, Ted Cole takes on the role October 4 until closing on October 25. But courage is what acting is all about.

Bellis, of course, is ‘dead brilliant’ – in Rita’s vernacular – in the role. A consummate actor, Bellis can do it all from King John at Bard on the Beach and a quirky shepherd in Hotel Bethlehem to porn-loving puppet, Trekkie Monster, in Avenue Q. Whatever it takes, Bellis has the goods. As Frank, he’s jaded, morose, drunken, excited, elated, flirtatious, angry, humbled and he does all this with the grace of a dancer. Just watching Bellis go back and forth across the stage to a coat rack to change sweaters and jackets, is beautiful. And, as falling-down-drunk Frank, there’s no excess. It’s called art. And it’s what Bellis does.

Scott Bellis Credit: Murray Mitchell
Scott Bellis
Credit: Murray Mitchell

Holly Lewis, originally from Toronto, but now living in Kamloops, reprises the role of Rita from that Sagebrush production. It must feel like a family reunion: Rodgers, Bellis and Lewis – together again. Asked by a friend last year how rehearsals for Educating Rita were going, Lewis quipped, “It’s busy, but it’s like working your butt off eating candy.” And Lewis so obviously relishes the role. Rita, a working-class Liverpool hairdresser married to a hard-drinking working class lout, wants more out of life and applies to an open university for an English Lit tutor. Frank, a failed poet given to drink, is assigned to her but he makes it clear he’s not interested. She persists and the struggle is on to turn her into a “proper, educated woman”. It’s like My Fair Lady in reverse; this professor couldn’t give a damn how she mangles the language.

In an interview Lewis explained that her voice coach felt pure Liverpudlian might not be understood by audiences so it’s a sort of blend between Manchester and Liverpool. And, indeed, it’s hard to understand at first. Whether you catch every word or not, Lewis throws herself into the role with such buoyancy and enthusiasm that it really doesn’t matter. Rita’s lack of sophistication is the fuel for comedy and the play, despite its more serious intent, is quite funny.

Scott Bellis and Holly Lewis Credit: Murray Mitchell
Scott Bellis and Holly Lewis
Credit: Murray Mitchell

But penned in 1980 by Willy Russell (who also wrote Shirley Valentine), Act 1 takes more than two terrific performances by two skilled actors to make it fly. Variations on the same scene continue long after we’ve got it: Rita’s actually educating Frank.

Act 2, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Rita now understands Blake, loves Chekhov and can quote Shakespeare – but in the process is losing what is unique about her. But life opens up for her and, too obviously, life opens up for Frank, as well.

Drew Facey’s set – walls and walls of books behind which Frank stashes bottles – is attractive and lighting designer Gerald King shows the passing of time with snow, rain, sunshine or falling leaves behind large windows. Clearly, we are in a long-occupied academic’s office.

If you’re going to do Educating Rita, this is as fine a production as you will see. The team – Sarah Rodgers, Holly Lewis and Scott Bellis – is stellar. Playwright Willy Russell, however, has been warming our hearts for a couple of decades with this one and it’s beginning to leave me a bit lukewarm.