Tag Archives: Willy Russell

Class Struggle


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019


Almost forty years after its first production, Willy Russell’s acerbic two-hander is doing the rounds again, and it’s a pleasure to reconnect with the story of hairdresser Rita as she pursues her academic aspirations in order to better herself and improve her lot.  The tutor assigned to her by the Open University is jaded lecturer and functioning alcoholic Frank, who overcomes his reluctance and forms a bond with his persistent and unconventional new student.

We laugh at Rita’s gaffes, as we meet her through Frank’s eyes – the play credits us with a modicum of literary knowledge – and we see, also through Frank’s eyes, how education changes the bright but awkward young woman into a confident, knowledgeable scholar.  Frank thinks he has created a monster, Frankenstein-style – but what Rita has done is break the mould of her working-class upbringing.  By aspiring to something other than material gain and a ‘good night out’ down the pub, Rita has changed her life.  She now has something she never had before: choices.

As Frank, Stephen Tompkinson does a flawless job, dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  Jessica Johnson’s Rita has impeccable comic timing, although her accent can wander around the Mersey estuary (and sometimes across the Irish Sea).  There is nothing to say that Rita has to be from Russell’s hometown of Liverpool; she could spring from any working-class community.

The star of the show is Willy Russell, and it’s great to be reminded of the richness of his writing. There is much more to the play than the snappy jokes and the developing relationship and mutual respect between tutor and student.  There is social commentary about the rigidity of the class system and the perceived need to maintain the boundaries that define who people are.  Rita battles against the prevailing working-class attitude that art, books, the opera and so on are ‘not for us’, but once the genie is out of the bottle, she is unable to go back to pub singalongs and settling down with her lot.

Director Max Roberts navigates Rita’s mercurial mood changes: one minute she’s mouthing off, making wise cracks, and the next she’s revealing some home truth; Roberts keeps his cast of two busy.  Both characters are somewhat histrionic in their own way so there is no danger of things becoming static.  Patrick Connellan’s set, with books everywhere, encapsulates dishevelled academia (representing Frank himself) with Rita as an agent of change, for herself and for her unwilling tutor.  Neither of their lives will be quite the same again.

There are plenty of laughs, and even a couple of touching moments.  The message is not heavy-handed, but I wonder how relevant it is today.  And then I think of the obstacles placed in the path of working-class people that hinder their access to higher education, some of which come from the working-class mindset itself, and I think, yes, the play still has currency.

A modern classic, finely presented, this play will make you laugh and make you think.


Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson

Valentine’s Day


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7th March, 2017


This revival of Willy Russell’s play from 1986 reminds the film version’s legions of fans that the piece started life as an extended monologue, a one-woman show.  The one woman this time, following in the footsteps of the likes of Noreen Kershaw and Pauline Collins, is musical theatre star Jodie Prenger, and I am interested to see how she will fare without recourse to her impressive singing voice.

As forlorn housewife Shirley, Prenger more than acquits herself, pulling off a comic turn that is as endearing as it is funny.  I could be churlish and nit-pick her adopted accent, which tends to roam around Merseyside at times, but on the whole, she captures the cadence of Russell’s Liverpudlian phrases – what matters is she can time a punchline, and the script is riddled with those.  As she recounts her story, Shirley presents other characters: her mardy husband, her son and daughter, her neighbour, and so on.  Prenger effectively sketches these personalities for us through voice and attitude, and tells her anecdotes with verve and energy.  Alone throughout, Prenger fills the stage with her presence and it is enjoyable to behold.

Director Gwen Walford takes a straightforward approach, having Prenger animated and larger-than-life for the funny bits, and keeping her still for the poignant moments.  Simple but strong.

Amy Yardley’s set gives us the sunshine yellow of Shirley’s kitchen – a gilded cage – and also an effective representation of a secluded Grecian beach – it is here that James Whiteside’s gorgeous lighting beats down like the relentless sun.

Jodie Prenger’s comic energy and commitment to the role keep us on board with Shirley – her journey is as much a mental one as a physical change of location – and it’s delightful to be reminded of the quality of Willy Russell’s writing.

Russell’s script stands the test of time.  There is an element of nostalgia in its references to the F-Plan diet and the Milk Tray man but the jokes hold up, as does the play’s central message: Life is to be lived.  In this sense, Shirley is more than a downtrodden housewife reclaiming her identity and asserting her independence; she is an Everyman, speaking to us all.


Pact Houses


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 29th April, 2013

It’s been years since I’ve seen Willy Russell’s incredibly successful musical and I have truly lost count of how many times I’ve seen it overall; so I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with its wit and melodrama.

Very little has changed.  There is a Nolan sister in the female lead as Mrs Johnstone (in this case it was Maureen but I think I’ve seen them all take a turn at least once) and the familiar redbrick terraced houses are still there – and this is because the show still works.  It doesn’t need a remould or touching up.  The sad fact is society has gone backwards to meet it: the social commentary has become piercingly pertinent all over again.

It begins with a rhyming prologue – a trick Willy Russell borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet – in which the whole plot is sketched out, heightening the inevitability of the tragedy to follow.

Mrs Johnstone, abandoned by her husband, struggles to feed her host of children.  They cry out in hunger and it’s no longer a ‘weren’t-times-tough’ kind of vibe.  Child poverty in this country is back in vogue, folks.  But Mrs Johnstone is no scrounger.  Drowning in debt to the catalogue company, she gets a job cleaning for a middle-class couple in a nicer part of town.  Suddenly, superstition comes into play.  An ill-advised and illegal pact between the women is doomed to failure and destruction.  Mrs Johnstone gives up one of her newborn twin sons to the childless Mrs Lyons.  Despite their mothers’ best efforts the boys meet and become friends – they make a pact, unwittingly mixing the blood they already share.

The scenes with the grown-up actors playing kids are what give the piece most of its humour and heart, and what attaches us to the protagonists.  We see the unfairness of their separation and, by extension, the inequalities in society reflected in their different upbringings.  Sean Jones is particularly good as Mickey, from age 7 running around to adulthood depression and desperation.  Daniel Taylor is good and scary as older brother Sammy, suddenly wilting into petulance when his mam insists he goes indoors, and I was particularly impressed by Olivia Sloyan’s Linda who transforms from little girl to teenage temptress to desperate housewife.

Tim Churchill stalks around as a casually malevolent Narrator, the external force commenting on the action and subtly manipulating it.  With superstition a recurring theme, we wonder who he is.  The Devil perhaps…

Maureen Nolan is in excellent voice as chirpy Mrs Johnstone – the explosive denouement still shocks and the final song is as devastating as ever .   Even if you’ve seen it before – and there were many people in the auditorium who keep going back time and time again.  Although it has finally closed in the West End, the show seems to be perennially on tour – you never have to wait long to get another fix of sardonic Scouse humour and witty lyrics, and it continues to do great business wherever it goes.

The Narrator poses the question directly to us: is it superstition or class that is behind the tragedy.  He asks us to look for real-life causes of poverty, injustice and oppression.  The class war is still very much with us and this 28 year old nostalgic story seems bang up-to-date and a little subversive.

Willy Russell’s feel-bad musical celebrates the humanity of the poor – something which is viciously overlooked by today’s coalition government.

Maureen Nolan and Sean Jones

Maureen Nolan and Sean Jones

Lessons from the Past

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.