Stephen Tompkinson on starring in Educating Rita at the King Theatre, Southsea: 'The standard of Willy Russell's writing elevates the pair of us as actors’

Stephen Tompkinson first read Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita when he was still a teenager, igniting a life-long passion for the great playwright’s work.

Thursday, 6th February 2020, 8:53 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th February 2020, 8:53 pm
Stephen Tomkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita in Educating Rita. Photo by Robert Day.

It tells the story of married hairdresser Rita who enrols on a university course to expand her horizons, little realising where the journey will take her.

Her tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker who’s less than enthusiastic about taking Rita on, but the two soon realise how much they have to teach each other.

It was only when Stephen was talking to actress Jessica Johnson and she suggested the two of them try the play on for size that he realised he was now the right age to play Frank.

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The pair had found themselves in the north-east when Jessica was starring – and attracting rave reviews – in a new piece called Goth Weekend and Stephen was in rehearsals for another play nearby.

‘We got chatting and she had played Rita before but in a more sort of up-to-date version,’ says Stephen, ‘which she did at the Gala Theatre in Durham. It only played for a week and she did it in her own native north-east accent.

‘But she was saying she'd love a longer run at it, which was when she said: “You'd make a great Frank”.

‘It had been a while since I'd read the play so I went back to it, and realised, lo and behold, I'm now the right age to play Frank. I’ve been reading it ever since I was about 15 when it first came out. So Jessica suggested it and then we set the ball rolling between us.’

Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson in Educating Rita. Picture by Robert Day.

They approached hit stage producer David Pugh and his business partner Dafydd Rogers, and soon found themselves auditioning in front of the pair – and Willy Russell’s daughter, Rachel.

‘They thought we were a good match-up and Willy let us have the rights and then he came in every week on rehearsals.

‘It's a real privilege to work for him and to remind the audience as well what a brilliant play he wrote 40 years ago. This is effectively the 40th anniversary tour, which it’s very nice to be a part of.’

The story is probably best known for its Golden Globe and Bafta awards-winning 1983 film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine.

But the original 1980 play is a two-hander, which puts a huge demand on its leads.

As the star of such major TV hits Wild at Heart, DCI Banks, Ballykissangel and Drop The Dead Donkey, Stephen is well-used to being in front of the camera, but he has also been a regular on stages in the West End and across the country.

‘Being on stage is a challenge that I absolutely delight in,’ says Stephen, ‘and Jess is amazing to work with.

‘She has such a unique take on the role and she's her own person, her own actress, and most of the reviews we got last year complimented us on the fact of how well we work together.’

The two undertook a tour last year, which was extended into 2020 following critical acclaim and packed houses.

‘Those reviews are real lovely things to read, but also testament to the standard of Willy's writing – it just elevates the pair of us as actors.

‘It's just a joy to put it in front of an audience. It’s a gorgeous shared experience.’

This production is set in the time when it was written, so were there ever any concerns that its themes were still relevant?

‘That’s the lovely thing about the play – people were wondering: “Is it still relevant today?” But it absolutely is. People being given second chances and choices in their lives, is as relevant today as it was then.

‘I think a lot of people come to see the show because they have a fondness for the film, but they’ve not seen the stage show before. The play is just set in Frank's office at this university and it is just the two of them all the way through, so you follow this journey with these two characters and audiences really take to it from the word go.

‘And they root for both characters simultaneously, which is always surprising to me. You’d think they would take sides at some point or another, but they don't, they really enjoy the journey of these two characters and follow it all the way through.

‘The response we got last year was incredible so it was a very quick conversation when it was put to us: “Would you like to continue this next year?”’

With so many big names having taken on the roles before, did they find it easy to put their own stamp on it?

‘You have a lovely safety net of Willy’s words, and the fact that it is the two of us doing it live in front of an audience gives you a lot more control.

‘You get to tell the story from the beginning to the middle to the end – you’re never allowed that luxury in front of camera. It's really nice and it does become our show each night, and things do change every night.

‘Jess is very inventive. We work in very similar ways and we rely very heavily on each other. You’re always finding new things and the audience allow you to do that, and touring allows you to do that – it keeps it fresh every week.’

They also had the great advantage of Russell, who also wrote the likes of Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine, joining them in rehearsals.

‘That was lovely. He wasn't precious at all about his original version – he knows that audiences have changed in 40 years and don't need to be possibly spoon fed as much, so we took about 20 minutes out of his original work and added little bits to it as well.

‘He was incredibly amenable and adaptable and just a joy to work with.’

Educating Rita is at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, from February 10 to 15. Adult tickets cost £27-35.

Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk or call the box office on (023) 9282 8282.