Lenny Henry in Educating Ritaby Sabo Kpade

Lenny Henry’s rebirth as a stage and screen actor is as surprising as it is admirable. By taking on Othello and Troy Maxson in Fences, roles that have been played by powerhouse actors he hasn’t chosen the easy route. In these productions, he played against his strengths as a stand up comic. In Educating Rita he downshifts, playing towards his strengths.

Willy Russell’s play, later adapted for the screen starring Michael Cain and Julie Walters, has a familiar plot. Rita is a twenty six year old working class girl with a strong regional accent who got accepted onto an Open University course. Her lecturer is Frank a divorced, washed up academic who is now in an apparently joyless relationship and has a worrying drinking habit. He has devised a hilarious system of hiding bottles behind books by notable English writers in his office.

Rita is the soul and active agent in the story. She is determined to better herself by transcending the trappings of her unfulfilling marriage and her working class background. Professor Frank is stuck in his own rot. Scornful of his published but uncelebrated collection of poetry, he has stopped writing altogether since his wife left him. He is now in a working, but apparently joyless, relationship with a former PhD student.

Tall , slim with a cool reserve, Michael Caine’s portrayal of Frank is that of a down-and-out man who has allowed himself to be washed away by the tide of bad luck and bad choices he has made and seems resigned to his fate. In the play, Henry’s portrayal is quite the same except that he appears to be enjoying his ruinous state as if the point is to revel in every minute of it. With that rumble in his timber, his fuzzy afro, bushy beard and his armoury of charm, he easily wins the crowd over.

Lashana Lynch is impressive as Rita. She has a feistiness that shines through even when she is out of her depth amongst well read and well heeled students. And when she is racked by self doubt and the breakdown of her marriage, Lynch is convincingly fragile, so much so that you want to get off your feet and hug her. Rita may have chosen literature as a way of transcending herself, but you get the feeling that even if it was IT or scuba diving she chose, her self-belief and readiness to learn would remain her trump cards.

So what could possibly go wrong? Nothing except that Henry fluffed his lines early on but instead of carrying on, he apologised to the audience and excused himself from the stage. It is an experience many actors dread on stage and it took a moment before I realised that it was actually happening. This is Henry’s first show since accepting a knighthood and a play with a high laugh-count as this should present no problems for him. It wasn’t clear if this was a case of nervousness given that it was a press night. Neither were any reasons given for the mishap.  So graceful was the audience that when, minutes later, he and Lynch returned to the stage, they were applauded (before then and up until the intermission, every end of scene was greeted with applause. I, for one, quickly forgot of the incident).

Such a lapse could cripple other actors especially in a run packed with critics. The stakes were even higher now and another fluffed line and departure from the stage would have been disastrous. Rather than mar his performance this brought urgency to it, narrowing the lens on him. All along Lynch kept her calm and even told an off-script joke in character about doing Henry’s monologues. She was the emotional core of the play steadying the ship that almost capsized.

Henry was playing a man with serious professional and personal problems who may have had a serious professional or, perhaps, personal problem that affected his performance on stage. How very meta. What was unforgivable, though understandable, was his refusal to bow properly at the end making for another awkward moment for his co-star and before a rapturous crowd some of whom stood up in ovation – this critic included. Whatever the problems are, the hope is that he overcomes them and fulfils his duty to the troves of people who hold him dear and pay to see him on stage. As for Lynch, her talent and professionalism will deservedly take her to great heights.

Educating Rita is at the Chichester Festival Theatre from 18 June – 25 July

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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. Follow him on twitter @GeekStreetuk

This review was edited by Media Diversified’s Arts and Culture editor Tara John. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact Tara@mediadiversified.org

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