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EDUCATING RITA (article first published : 2003-07-26)

A familiar Durban theatre personality for many years, Murray McGibbon is back in the city after an absence of nearly seven years to direct the two-hander Educating Rita. The production marks the official launch of the KickstArt theatre company’s residency at the Kwasuka Theatre for 18 months.

Educating Rita comes from the incisive and searching pen of Willy Russell who also wrote the delightful and amusing Shirley Valentine. Both plays were made into highly successful films, with Educating Rita starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Murray directed Shirley Valentine in Durban for The Playhouse Company and the VITA award-winning production starred Diane Wilson.

As former artistic director of the Playhouse Company and having won an impressive number of awards before his departure, Murray is currently resident in the United States. Always a director with a clear and firm hand, he has chosen well-known and respected local actors Dennis Schauffer and Philippa Savage to star in what promises to be the most popular production to date to play this charming and intimate theatre.

The play is a kind of modern-day Pygmalion where the ill-educated and roughly-spoken pupil eventually takes on the role of teacher and advisor. Putting in good performances as the disillusioned and fairly inebriated professor of literature and his bright and breezy student Rita, Dennis Schauffer and Philippa Savage are consistent in keeping the action and moods going as well as the suble power shifts. While the play is about education and language, it is certainly not an academic work but more of a bitter-sweet love story.

In the field of education himself, Dennis Schauffer slips easily into the role of Dr Frank Byant who finds himself jolted out of a comfort zone, suitably encouraged by the help of various whisky bottles hidden behind the books in his vast library, by a student of an Open University. Calling herself Rita, because she thinks it’s more impressive than her own name, she has come to him for tutorials.

Rita is bent on “discovering” herself and improving her education. Frank, on the other hand, is excited by her fresh, candid and outspoken approach. He falls into the trap of guarding the process of her education too closely and becomes jealous and bitter as her search for self-expression leads her to take in the opinions of others whom he considers unworthy. Once confidants, they become protagonists. There are some beautiful scenes, sensitively played.

Educating Rita is produced by KickstArt in association with Presto Theatre International. I would urge you to see it – not only for the intrinsic value of the production itself but for what this pro-active and courageous company is doing in its aim to present a high standard of dramatic work for Durban audiences.

Greg King has designed an impressive set although it does need more clutter and the mild chaos hinted at in the text. The play runs at the Kwasuka Theatre from July 25 to August 17. Booking is at Computicket (011-340-8000). Group or block bookings through KickstArt on 083 544 2006. – Caroline Smart




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