Sunday, 19 July 2015

11 July, 2015 "Educating Rita" at Chichester Festival Theatre ***

I have to start by eating a large slice of humble pie. Lenny Henry gives a more than decent performance in this production. I have always had trouble working out why it is that Henry is so high profile. As a stand-up he’s has never made me laugh and he has long since been overtaken by the current crop of comedians. He is not a writer. And he is not an actor.

This idea that without any grounding or training at all a person can by sheer force of personality become an actor is surely an insult to all those who plying the acting trade who have learned their craft at RADA, Central, or the like. British actors are revered and respected the world over due to the thoroughness of their training. It seems to me unfair that a TV personality can walk into a plum acting role simply because the management know their name on the bill will put bums on seats. Not only do highly talented and deserving thesps lose out, but ultimately we all do, because these people are at best gifted amateurs and their performances by and large reflect this.

In the theatre, Henry’s stand-up past is never very far away. He is just too aware of the audience and too anxious about its reaction. This means that he never quite convinces as a character enough for the suspension of disbelief. But having said all that, he is far more comfortable in this role than must critics give him credit for, and his performance serves the play well.

This is a play that superficially seems to be of its time and therefore dated, but ultimately still has much to say about the fundamental gulfs between the financial and cultural strata of our society, a situation which far from improving since the play was written has in fact worsened.

By contrast, and just to disprove everything I said at the beginning of this article, Lashana Lynch is disappointing for me. I try my best not to be perverse, but contrary to the views of all the critics I find her performance unconvincing. Her delivery is strident, bordering on shouting, her Scouse accent is over-coached and becomes a parody and she has a verbal tick which seems to add an “mm” to the end of every sentence. At first I thought this was a deliberate ploy to show Rita’s lack of confidence at the start, and that she would calm down, take it down a notch or two and relax – but she didn’t. It is the sort of delivery you get in a bad sitcom where the laughs are not coming and the cast are getting desperate.

But we must not be too niggardly with our praise. Such a wordy double hander where neither actor is off stage for more than a minute takes an enormous amount of stamina and effort, both performers demand our respect simply for getting through it. Michael Buffong does a fine job of direction sticking faithfully to the text and not allowing ethnicity to have any signficance within the play. Designer Ellen Cairns's depiction of the organised chaos of a don's study is a joy.

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