If there’s a consistent thread that runs through the work of Willy Russell, it’s the need for escape, usually from a stagnant class system that oppresses his protagonists. Yet his work is more nuanced, less moralistic than you might expect. From Shirley Valentine’s life changing holiday, to the school excursion in Our Day Out and on to the desperate stratagems of the Johnstone family in Blood Brothers each time a character flees their situation, they are left with a certain longing for the world they abandoned. Perhaps the greatest escape of all is that performed by the protagonist of Educating Rita, but even education doesn’t provide a total break from the past – as Emma Cunniffe attests.
This actress, whose television credits include the lead role in The Lakes, will star opposite Corrie actor Charles Lawson in this memorable theatrical duet. Cunniffe believes that the much acclaimed film of the piece (starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine) might well be an advantage to this particular production. ‘Whenever I tell people I’m doing it, they say, “Oh, yes I remember the film”, but I think that’s no bad thing really, in terms of making people want to come. Hopefully we’ll bring our own quality to it. The play is a two hander – I think the other characters in the film open it out. Here you just see Rita and Frank in one room, so I think you get more into their relationship.’
Cunniffe is alert, though, to the fact that the play is not simple escapism any more than Rita’s university career is a simple escape. ‘Rita thinks she’ll find a better landscape a better world than the class she’s trapped in. She imagines a world where people are happier in a more educated, more civilised world. There’s something about the writing at the end of the play, where although she’s learned a lot about herself, we’re not sure where she’s going next. She feels she has more choices, but she’s still got decisions to make about her personal life, and even though knowing more is great, you can read all the books in the world, but there are still things you must face.’
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 11 Feb–Sat 2 Mar