Willy Russell’s classic two-hander, Educating Rita, is revised – “revitalised” according to the publicity – in this production at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch.

Two things set it apart: the stage is extended into the auditorium, with the audience on three sides of Frank’s untidy university study. And the action has been transported from Merseyside to our own Essex, perhaps in the hope that Rita’s inspiring story will find a new resonance, and enhanced relevance, for the theatre-goers of Havering and district.

In truth, these are of marginal significance. There is more space to fill with the nicely designed chaos of Frank’s filing system – though as so often the books on the shelves fail to convince. The two actors, though, spend much time moving around in order to vary the view. And the setting, as always, is a fantasy – an Open University student getting one-to-one tutorials in a seat of learning that is redbrick, if not older, all within easy reach of, say, Romford High Street. No chance, squire.
Ros Philip’s pacy production boasts two fine performances from teacher and student. Ruairi Conaghan, scruffy, bearded and “British poet” neatly captures the frustration of the lecturer who’s tired of the academic life. He’s particularly effective in his drunken collapse, sleeping on a heap of essays, and in his more thoughtful moments. Smoking hunched over his Remington a memorable stage picture. Danielle Flett is superb as the gobby hairdresser: eager, nervous, hungry to learn everything, starting with the meaning of “assonance”. She’s totally convincing in her metamorphosis to confident, articulate young woman. Her flirtatious approach to Frank is tellingly done, culminating in the stylist’s seduction which ends the play. A riveting performance.

Written in 1980, this is very much a play for its time, and Hornchurch wisely resists the temptation to update as well as uproot. The short scenes are punctuated by jukebox hits: The Police, Abba, Madness, Status Quo. With folk and the Four Seasons on Frank’s transistor – cultural relativism one of the underlying themes.

The main theme, of course, is the transformative power of education – in this case, English Literature: Blake and Forster, Yeats and Shakespeare. As a perceptive essay in the programme points out, much has changed since Rita burst through the door into the alien world of academia. Students now incur heavy debts for what was free back then. Few now seriously consider learning for its own sake to be an engine of social mobility. And the shared assumptions that made Russell’s comedy so successful for years are largely gone.

Nonetheless, this straightforward, honest production still packs a punch, and raises awkward questions about education in today’s classless society, even if cathartic laughter is in short supply.

Runs until 13 May 2017 | Image: Mark Sepple

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