WILLY Russell’s classic play of university life, Educating Rita celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, yet is as fresh and relevant as ever.

The Pygmalion-style tale of Susan ‘Rita’ White – a Liverpudlian hairdresser striving for a better life at the Open University, and frustrated professor Frank Bryant, has been a hit since its premier at the Donmar Warehouse in 1980 – gaining further popularity with the1983 film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.

This week it is back at the Oxford Playhouse with Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson as, respectively, the academic tormented by demons, and his working class student eager to escape her background.

It was a chance discussion between the two actors about their mutual love for the play that was the spark for the 2019 revival, reprised for the 40th anniversary, as Dianne Bourne discovered.

“Last year was such a great success and having the chance to go on and do it when it’s officially the 40th anniversary tour is a lovely bonus,” says Stephen, best known for his roles in Ballykissangel, Chancer, Grafters, DCI Banks and the award-winning Brassed Off.

“We set out to try and remind people what a brilliant play Willy wrote and it’s still so incredibly relevant today,” he goes on. “It’s only by performing that and letting people hear his words that you see it’s kind of like a long lost friend.”

Willy was heavily involved in the rehearsals for the production, and gave his ringing endorsement after the opening night.

Stephen, 54, recalls: “Willy came backstage after the first night and said ‘thank you for giving me my play back’.

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“That was just wonderful because it was what we were trying to achieve, not just make it a star vehicle for one member of the company which has often been the case for some productions.

“It’s a massively popular play. I think people just needed to be reminded of that. The reviews have been amazing so we’re delighted to be taking it out again.”

For Jessica, 38, the character of Rita has particular resonance. Like Rita, she also returned to university education as a mature student.

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She says: “I was 23 when I went to university. For me, life kept getting in the way of university. Some people are ready for studying at different times. Education was not for me at 14 and 15, but when I got to 23 I was ready for it.”

Jessica hails the play as a personal inspiration. She says: “From a very young age when I read Educating Rita, it gave me permission to aspire, to have the option of a different way of life.

“I felt that connection with her, the class struggle, the social struggle, the want for something better – that’s something I could get behind and I hope that I bring that to the part.”

Reviews for this production, set in the original time of 1980, picked up on just how relevant its themes remain today, 40 years on.

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Sunderland-raised Jessica says: “It’s a discussion we’re still having now, about opportunities for young people and the disparity of wealth.

“I’m a working class girl and there were certain opportunities not available to me, because of where I came from and I get that with Rita. There’s this want, this need, this search for something more out of life. It does resonate.

“I have two teenagers and they want more from life as well. It’s so relevant especially for young people coming to see the play, they’ve got that fight and spirit of Rita.”

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Teesside lad Stephen has relished getting inside the head of the professor. “Frank is terribly disappointed in life, he’s not been a great success at being a poet, he’s disappointed in the way the curriculum dictates how he teaches,” he says. “There’s nothing of him in there, there’s no passion. So to meet this woman with so much passion, he almost wants to run away. She offers him a little bit of a lifeline, and he’s doing the same for her. There is definitely an attraction for him.

“It’s a brilliantly written play, and a universal story of two lost souls, mismatched people in terms of character and background who meet at the right time to help each other in life.”

Jessica adds: “It’s a love story. They care for each other – and she loves him for giving her the opportunities.”

  • Educating Rita runs until Saturday at the Oxford Playhouse.
  • Tickets from oxfordplayhouse.com
  • Fact: Educating Rita premiered at the Warehouse Theatre (now Donmar Warehouse) where Julie Walters first played the role of Rita opposite Mark Kingston as Frank. It was written for just 17 performances – which is all it was originally booked in for.