It’s hard to believe it is 40 years since Willy Russell introduced us to his spirited and delightful heroine Rita and her world-weary Open University tutor Frank, writes Angie Johnson.

This anniversary touring production of Educating Rita confirms that this classic play packs as feisty a punch as ever. Fresh and sparky, the essential uplifting message that it’s never too late to learn something new and turn your life round for the better, still rings out loud and clear.

In contrast to the famous film version with Michael Caine and Julie Walters, this stage production is much more subtle and moving as it explores the life lessons the pair learn on their journey together. This is particularly true of Stephen Tompkinson’s outstanding performance as Frank, the former poet who – though he does not realise it until Rita breezes into his study – is also seeking escape from his routine existence at the bottom of a whisky bottle.

It is a very, very funny portrayal but also finely nuanced with the melancholy and challenges that such life changing journeys can embrace on the way.

Subtlety is also the key to Jessica Johnson’s performance as Rita. She lights up the stage with her wit and charm as the talented and intellectually hungry hairdresser who is looking for ‘a better song to sing’, but also brings out the character’s vulnerability. That is something I have not seen so well expressed before in this role, making the character’s progression much more profound.

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The production is accomplished on all fronts. Designer Patrick Connellan has created a perfect evocation of timeless and insulated campus life in the crucible of Frank’s study. The script itself transcends the era in which it was written – and not entirely because of the English Lit jokes that season things up throughout. It taps into the eternal human hope for fulfilment and self-betterment that we can all recognise. Educating Rita is a love story that does not end with the protagonists getting off with each other – but instead learning to love themselves more.

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This enjoyable play is a perfect celebration of the opportunities that adult education gives people to take a leap of faith in themselves and follow their dreams.