Stephen Tompkinson stars on Sheffield Lyceum stage in popular comedy Educating Rita

A chance meeting and a mutual love of Educating Rita was the spark for the major new production of the acclaimed Willy Russell play which is heading to Sheffield on a national tour.

Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 5:37 pm
Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson star in Educating Rita
Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson star in Educating Rita

Jessica Johnson will play Susan ‘Rita’ White, the Liverpudlian hairdresser aiming for a better life at the Open University, opposite Stephen Tompkinson as her frustrated professor, Frank Bryant.

The new production came about after a meeting between the two leads when both were performing at Live Theatre in Newcastle.

Jessica said: "We crossed paths and got chatting, and I just said to Stephen I thought he would make an amazing Frank.

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"I had just done a short run of Educating Rita in Durham at the Gala Theatre and was telling Stephen how I'd love to get a longer run at this incredible role."

Stephen, 53, adds: "It transpired it's a play we’ve both loved for many, many years. So I went away and reread the play, which I had been reading since I was 15.

“In fact a school friend and I used to rehearse it in my dad’s garage together but of course I was way too young for the role back then.

“But rereading the play I realised I’m now the right age to play Frank which was a little bit scary to begin with!”

It led Stephen, who has been performing in the acclaimed production of Yasmina Reza’s Art on a national tour for the past year, to broach the idea of doing something with Educating Rita in future with Art’s producers, David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers.

David loved the idea and brought together Jessica and Stephen for a performance of the play in a hotel room in Bath in front of playwright Willy Russell’s daughter Rachel.

“We had a rather nervous performance of the play in a hotel room, to see if there were any legs in it and fortunately we passed with flying colours.”

Willy Russell himself has been heavily involved.

Stephen said: “To have Willy there at every stage of rehearsal, that’s truly inspirational and what will hopefully make this production stand apart. It’s his play, so we couldn’t look for more inspiration than that.”

Jessica added: “To get his insight in the room with us, it’s a real privilege. I’ve devoured all of his plays, so to get his insight in the character he wrote is incredible.”

For Jessica, the character of Rita has particular resonance as she was a mature student.

“Some people are ready for studying at different times. Education was not for me at 14, 15, but when I got to 23 I was ready for it.”

Stephen, who is known and loved for his time in long-running TV dramas including Ballykissangel, Wild at Heart and DCI Banks, is relishing getting inside the head of Frank.

He said: “Frank is terribly disappointed in life, he’s not been a great success at being a poet, he’s disappointed in the way the curriculum dictates how he teaches. There’s nothing of him in there, there’s no passion.

“So to meet this woman with so much passion, he almost wants to run away. She offers him a little bit of a lifeline, and he’s doing the same for her. There is definitely an attraction for him.

“It’s a brilliantly-written play, and a universal story of two lost souls, mismatched people in terms of character and background who meet at the right time to help each other in life.”

Educating Rita is at Sheffield Lyceum on July 22 to 27. Box office: