Tragedy made fun

Educating Rita

Review | by Sean McQuaid

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Watermark Theatre – July 15, 2022

Best PEI theatre summer ever? As of mid-July, I’ve seen three deeply disparate shows at three different venues, and they’ve all been stellar stuff. Well played, thespians.

Latest of those three shows is Educating Rita at the Watermark Theatre, a thoughtful, darkly funny dramedy written by UK playwright Willy Russell in 1980 and directed here by Martha Irving (full disclosure: daughter of my past collaborator Ron Irving). Naomi Ngebulana and Réjean Cournoyer star in this two-hander as the titular Rita, a lively, lower-class, late-20s hairdresser seeking self-improvement via university studies; and her pretentious middle-aged tutor, Frank, a boozily bitter ex-poet and self-loathing professor of English literature.

Equal parts fun and fascinating, Russell’s script—adapted into an award-winning 1983 film and oft-revived on stage—mines the odd-couple synergy of the Rita-Frank duo for laughs aplenty; but this breezy bantering comedy doubles as a slow-motion tragedy in which Rita’s emotional and intellectual growth gradually causes student and mentor to grow apart. The play neatly foreshadows this rift via discussion of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and how classical tragedy depicts characters whose flaws lead to inevitably tragic ends.

Russell’s play is a nexus of cultural cross-pollination. The Greek myth of Pygmalion (the sculptor whose female statue comes to life) inspires George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, which inspires the 1956 musical My Fair Lady and its 1964 film adaptation, and later Educating Rita; and while the latter includes a fun nod to British sci-fi institution Doctor Who, that TV show pays homage to Educating Rita decades later when the Doctor, posing as a professor, mentors working class lass Bill. Talking to TV Guide, showrunner Steven Moffat called Russell’s story “a good starting point” for Bill’s tale, one that “has all the spark and joy of a non-romantic romance.”

When Rita drags a reluctant Frank to a community theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Frank snobbishly assumes an amateur company will butcher the play. Says Rita, “It doesn’t matter who’s doin’ it, does it? It’s the same play, isn’t it?” Truth is, they’re both wrong. Amateurs often do great work; but professional or not, the creative team behind any show is key to how well that production works, regardless of how good the script is.

Ironically, one of the best parts of Watermark’s very fine creative team only recently turned pro: Naomi Ngebulana finished her formal theatrical education in 2020, just in time for the theatre business to shut down during the pandemic. Educating Rita marks her professional debut, and she is luminous in the title role—effervescent when Rita is playful or reveling in the joys of literature, fierce in scenes of anger, painfully desolate in moments of sadness. Rita talks about feeling the urge to warn MacBeth while watching his play, and darned if I didn’t feel the impulse to offer some sort of comfort or counsel to Ngebulana’s Rita once or twice on opening night. That’s some quality “false fire,” to purloin a Shakespearean phrase.

Stage veteran Cournoyer is similarly strong as Frank, especially in the climactic clash with Rita over Frank’s poetry (Cournoyer’s wordless horror aspect of that scene helping form one of those moments where I wished I could intervene). Another highlight is designer Wes Babcock’s bleakly gorgeous set: an exhaustively detailed and lived-in incarnation of Frank’s office, claustrophobically awash in a mass of pale, faded, indistinct books, some of them serving as makeshift furniture. Like Irving’s production, it’s smart, funny and sad all at once. Or as Rita puts it: “It’s fun, tragedy, isn’t it?”

Sean McQuaid
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.