Working-class Rita signs up for an open-university course at Queens Belfast to escape the stultifying narrowness of her marriage and hairdressing job. Boozed up English literature professor Frank can help her gain intellectual prowess; but his own problems are less easily dealt with.
This Lyric production of the classic Willy Russell 1980 play transposes the action from Liverpool to Belfast in an elegant adaptation which is simultaneously minimal and profound.
Much of the Belfast material is contained in background radio segments: chit-chat about locally produced sherry; but also engagement with traumatic political events like the hunger strikers. Outside the elegant academic-building windows we hear helicopters and see searchlights. The music is late 70s and early 80s party music with an Ulster punk inflection.
Michael James Ford and Kerri Quinn are both superb. Quinn rides out Russell’s laughs with tremendous big-haired charm, and Ford embodies the play’s tweedy tragedy. Though he is the educator, he is incapable of learning.
Emma Jordan directs with a sure hand; an inspired moment from lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels towards the end draws proper attention to Frank’s tragedy.
This play was a key work in the 1980s, both in its many stage revivals and the movie starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. This new production is highly entertaining as well as uplifting and the Belfast spin gives it a welcome freshness.
At a profound level, though, the story is still preserved in 1980s thought-aspic, when the notion that literature could change people was a workable idea. This concept belongs to a more idealistic era; it’s well worth time-travelling back to it.