Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: 'Educating Rita'

The modern-day British take on "Pygmalion" opens in a crisp production at Hedgerow Theatre. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Rose Valley in Delaware County.

Review: 'Educating Rita'

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Meredith Beck and Michael Hagan in "Educating Rita" at Hedgerow Theatre. Photos by Rick Prieur.

By Howard Shapiro

Into an office walks a woman, off the street, and asks a professor to make her a cultured lady. If that sounds a lot like Pgymalion, or its musical cousin My Fair Lady, by George, you’ve got it.

In the case of Educating Rita, in a lovely, crisp production that opened Tuesday night at Hedgerow Theatre, the story’s a little tweaked. Rita is a hairdresser in Liverpool who’s sung enough pub songs to begin singing to herself “Is That All There Is?” She’s determined to find out.

So she heads off to the University of Liverpool to try open class — a British program with a tutor who can prepare you for exams to get into the university fulltime, if that’s your goal. Her tutor: an aging alcoholic and failed poet who’d rather be in the pubs Rita is trying to escape.

Each will end up teaching the other. The street-smart brazen student will alter her natural spirit to meet the required detached academic mode of assessment. He will gain that spirit in the exchange. Whether they both live happily ever after is not the point; whether their lives are enlarged, is.

You can write the story yourself as soon as you’re into the second scene, but probably not as well as British playwright Willy Russell, whose Educating Rita was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered in London in 1980 with Julie Walters in the title role. Three years later, she went on to play it in the movies, with Michael Caine.

Some plays are merely talky; Educating Rita is positively garrulous. But it has a big heart, pumping through many short scenes in two acts, in a play without a hint of sentimentality or artificial sweetener. In the Hedgerow production, so thoughtfully staged by producing artistic director Penelope Reed, the play is real life unfolding — constant chatter, disconnected thoughts swirling around, real people behind them.

Meredith Beck is Rita — a commoner in pigtails popping from a colorful knit cap, a buttock-length skirt and platform stilettos. In the first scene Beck stands mid-stage in a clueless pose, a kewpie doll who time-sped through puberty. (Beck has the perfect look, and the legs for all the short-bottomed costumes she wears.) She plays Rita like a great navigator — you can see the young woman transform, gradually, with each scene, until she reaches her end point fully realized.

Beck has the perfect person to play off — the lanky Michael Hagan, whose rumpled, self-hating but serious character responds to her as if she’s a life force he’d only ever heard about. (She probably is.) Hagan plays tipsy very well, but he also comes across when he’s a real teacher — and, like Rita, a naif.

Cheers to Cathie Miglionico’s costume design; I stopped counting Rita’s between-scene clothing changes at seven, and her prof changes, too. The entire story plays out on Zoran Kovcic’s handsome, woody university office set but in fact, it plays out in aspirations far beyond that room.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.


Educating Rita: Presented by Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Rose Valley, near Media, through March 11. Tickets: $22-$29. Information: 610-565-4211 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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