Malvern Theatres, Malvern, Monday 14th May, 2012
This revival of Willy Russell’s first big hit, starring Matthew Kelly as boozy lecturer Frank and Claire Sweeney as wannabe intellectual hairdresser Rita, is like going back in time to the early 1980s. Some lines have been updated by Russell – Rita makes a joke about ‘fusion’ cuisine, for example – but on the whole, this is now largely a period piece.
Matthew Kelly warms to his portrayal of the alcoholic Frank, in much the same way that Frank warms to Rita as the illicit stash of Scotch warms his personality. The play opens with him speaking to himself, searching his bookcases for a hidden bottle, and it’s a theatrical moment that goes against the naturalistic flavour of the rest of the piece. But, as I said, he settles into the role and we can’t help liking him. This I feel has more to do with Kelly’s presence as an actor than the writing of this jaded and cantankerous booze hound. Frank is a figure in decline. Not so much a has-been as a never-was. His enthusiasm is reignited by the arrival of scatty but bright hairdresser Rita, who yearns to better herself via the Open University.
At first, I thought Claire Sweeney was playing it too hard-faced (an uncharitable gentleman seated behind me complained that she is too old; Rita is thirty-one) but on reflection, her entrance and her demeanour are entirely appropriate. Rita comes from the mean streets where money is tight, aspirations don’t exist and drink and drugs abound. That would age a person, make them harder. All the more effective then is her transformation as the course in Literary Criticism progresses. By the end, she is a confident, erudite and sophisticated woman, retaining her natural wit and warmth.
Not having seen the play for decades, I was struck by how bitty it is. Scenes are short – some of them only a few seconds – Claire Sweeney has several very quick changes to perform while onstage, Matthew Kelly merely changes his cardigan. Having seen more of Willy Russell’s output in the meantime, I could recognise his signature theme: how the working class holds itself back, how it is down to the individual to struggle against peer pressure and break out of the confines of the class structure. Rita, having trained as a hairdresser, wants more than her lot. She intimates that this disaffection is more widespread – her own mother has lapses and mourns the poor quality of life – but Rita has the will to do something about it.
Of course, what she becomes is questionable too. Frank realises his Pygmalion figure has become Frankenstein’s monster. Rita has progressed beyond his tutelage. Her star is in the ascendancy; his is in retrograde. She passes her exam; he is shipped off on a sabbatical to Australia as penance for his booze-fuelled misdemeanours. The play ends with a clumsy bit of innuendo. She is going to take ‘ten years off him’. She kneels in front of him… then takes her professional scissors from her back and holds them up. The way this was staged looked like she was about to castrate him – although perhaps she already has.
I was surprised that it was the performances that kept me engaged rather than any argument in the play. Some of the quips are a little too forced, in that sardonic Carla Lane kind of way. Tamara Harvey’s direction brings out the affection the characters develop for each other in a friendship that transcends the barriers of class and education. Perhaps this is the strongest point made by the play: the common humanity of people whatever their background. It was pleasant to revisit Rita and Frank after all these years but their story has lost some of its impact, in a way that an earlier Russell work, Stags & Hens, has not.