The Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham
16th April 2013
I am an inveterate aficionado of Willy Russell’s plays, and his incisive sideswipe at the Open University received a masterful workout in this hugely absorbing production at the Cheltenham Playhouse. All rise for Rory O’Sullivan who fashioned a frothy verbal tennis match driven by tour-de-force performances from its two players, and in which the star quality never diminished.
The world of disillusioned, boozy lecturer and failed poet Frank is given a thorough shakedown by jaunty Liverpool hairdresser who blasts into his cobweb-laden existence with the force of a nuclear missile in search of an education. Perched on high stilettos and wrapped in skin-tight mini-skirts, Naina Nightingale gave a towering performance as the chirpy, irresistible Rita, tottering excitedly round her tutor’s airless study and offering any number of alternative opinions on the great works of English literature. Maintaining a convincing Scouse accent throughout, she delivered every nugget of he gold-plated dialogue with expert timing and precision, yet Chris Carter as the embittered, tweedy academic was equally impressive and anything but eclipsed; displaying presence, passion and power he excelled in what must be the biggest of all supporting roles.
For all its upbeat pace, wit and charm, this was a frequently moving account of two wholly different worlds colliding, but ultimately to the common good, overcoming distinctions of class and personal perspective. With Frank slowly sinking into the alcoholic abyss, watching Rita pass him on the way up, and progressing from scatterbrained debutante to mature and insightful student, proved a most (ahem) sobering experience.
The Patesian Players found a wonderful song to sing tonight, and they could not have sung it any better, although the thoughtful Abba segues provided strong competition, especially with sections of the audience readily, if quietly, joining in.