Never Underestimate the Value of a Good Education (Rita’s in the Pink, and Frank needs another drink)
Sardines possibly conducted the last interview that Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson did before the all-encompassing Coronavirus crisis meant their tour was swiftly cut short.
We sat down with the pair (at a much bigger distance than usual) in Guildford after their matinee performance on 12 March… and the next day everything changed.
However, with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita being such a seminal play, as well as extremely popular with amateur companies, we thought you may still want to read our conversation. Here it is…
How is your return to Educating Rita and the touring 40th anniversary production going?
ST: “We did it last year for eighteen dates. Then, we realised this year marks the fortieth anniversary and we were asked to do more. It’s very hard to resist when you have such a security net in Willy Russell’s beautiful play. It’s actually all her fault…”
JJ: “…Yes it is; all my fault. I’ve done Rita before – in a different production in a different theatre – and me and Stephen crossed paths while rehearsing for different things. Over a pint we started talking about Rita, and I said how I’d love a longer run at it, having only done it for a week. I told him that actually he’d make a really good Frank, so he went away, read the script and, after shockingly realising he was the right age, it all came about from there. Ha ha!”
Does it surprise you, how popular this play remains after 40 years?
ST: “It’s interesting. You’d think that things would have changed after forty years but, sadly, they haven’t. It’s all still very relevant. You kind of wish things would change for the better but I guess it’s that universal theme of someone getting a second chance. People love that.”
JJ: “Plus I think it’s been in people’s lives for so long, affectionately so, you end up with these really strong relationships with Frank and Rita – to the point where they’re almost like relatives. A lot of people turn out because it’s been part of their lives for so long. Willy writes such amazing characters; honest and human, for performers and audiences.”
ST: “He’s absolutely delved into what he knows. He was a hairdresser himself, then went back into education when he started teaching. And the writing started after that, so it’s a perfect marriage of what he knows.”
“People also have a great deal of affection for the film. In fact we overheard a husband telling his wife that this play was based on the film. There are a lot of audiences who need reminding that this was a play originally, with just the two characters in the one room. And we follow them on this academic year, seeing how reliant they become on one another.”
The relationship between Frank and Rita also suggests a parallel between this play and Pygmalion?
ST: “Yes, and I think people do recognise that. It really is very well crafted. Mind you Willy said he didn’t give much thought to the books Rita reads…”
JJ: “The quotes are so elegant though, like the William Blake poem that she recites. It’s about the end of Eden, the end of Paradise; and that’s when their relationship starts to break down…”
ST: “…and all the rules of ‘tragedy’ apply to Frank. The warnings that he can’t see, he’s describing his own life and he isn’t aware of it.”
JJ: “It’s very, very clever, and there are many layers to it.”
ST: “Willy was with us in rehearsals every week, which was a real treat. He is a bit of a legend, and to an awful lot of people I think. Certainly as I was growing up as a teen, he was that first voice that spoke to me. He told me that even though he’d set the play in the world of academia, he wanted to make it successful to everyone. He wanted his mum to understand it.”
JJ: “Like Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine, he’s definitely coming at it from the working class angle. I think Stephen and I both read it in our teens at about the same age, although from different generations. I’m a working Geordie actress and Rita is the first character for me who did have a working class voice. It’s a big conversation at the moment; as an actress I don’t see myself on television or feel represented in theatre. Rita is definitely that one character of whom you can say, ‘Actually, maybe there is a place for me in theatre. If people are writing these characters in then I can play them, and relate to them. It was incredibly exciting. And then you move on to Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine – and you say, ‘Oh my God, Shirley Valentine’s just like me mum.’ It’s really empowering when you see yourself being represented.’ Rita definitely did that with me, as she did with a lot of other actresses and a lot of other people who just enjoy theatre; they all feel exactly the same about her.”
Your characters in the play are real opposites?
ST: “I think that’s what hooks the audience in; having these two diverse characters eventually come to need each other. These are always the best stage or screen relationships too. When they eventually find their way to each other it’s a much more solid bond which they’ve achieved, by working against everything that society has put against them to begin with. So the closer they get, you know that it is one forged in something really solid.”
Is the 1983 film an obstacle or a crutch when it comes to performing?
JJ: “I haven’t seen the film in a while although it is one of my firm favourites. Plus I’m a huge Julie Walters fan. She also played it onstage before it was shot. She was an unknown at that time – although very successful – so it was a bit of a chance really, and that’s what I think they’ve done with me. I’m not well known like Stephen is. So, I think I’ve got that in common with the ‘Julie Walters’ from the early 80s. Because she has made such a lasting impression on me, I can’t afford to reference her as I’d end up doing one big impersonation. So I can’t watch the film at the moment. I would definitely struggle to make it my own.
“Also, I’m a Geordie while Rita’s a Scouser so there’s bound to be a little crossover with the accent but, at the end of the day, even if you get a bit of flack, as well as an actress I’m just human and you do your best don’t you? I don’t think I give her a ‘bad’ accent, and the show is strong enough anyway. Even Claire Sweeney got a weird review about her accent and she’s actually from Liverpool! It’s hit-and-miss, but a great challenge. It be boring otherwise”
ST: “There is such fondness for the film and, from my perspective, was one of Michael Caine’s most famous roles. Plus it introduced the world to Julie Walters, which we’re all terribly grateful for. I think if people have seen the film, to then see it done live – which does include most of the words that are in the film – is a real treat. People also get lost in the fact that the play is just a two-hander. Willy said he didn’t really like expanding his play for the film to introduce more people such as other students at the university and Rita’s flatmate, Trish, plus locations like outside Frank’s house etc. But the nub of the film is the same as the play though.”
Having made a lot of TV, do you both feel at home on the stage right now?
ST: “Yes, absolutely. The TV stuff is actually very bitty, and it’s your life in many technicians’ hands. Depending on what locations are available, you can be doing a scene from the beginning of a piece, or the middle, or the end, out of sequence… and it’s up to everybody else to gel it all together. In theatre you have more control in terms of telling the story from beginning to end. Also, especially with a comedy, you rely on the audience to laugh and help you through it. They teach you when to put your foot on the accelerator and when to hold back. The beauty of touring, as well, means you spend a week in each place and it’s different every time, which helps keep it fresh. Even a matinee and an evening will give you completely different reactions.”
JJ: “Definitely, although there are a lot of actors who don’t. They get some TV or film and step out of theatre once they become established. I think Stephen’s really committed to keeping it all going, and I know how much he really enjoys it. I share the stage with him every day and it’s obvious to me how passionate he is about performing live. For me, it’s a bit like being an adrenaline junky; I get a real kick out of audiences. I learn the play from them, hearing them laugh, the applause. So it feels like a communal thing, an atmosphere that I really get a kick out of. And I know Stephen feels the same way. He’s an amazing actor; I saw him do Christmas Carol at The Old Vic where he brought some real humanity to Scrooge – which is not something I’d seen done before. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you can always learn something from watching good actors perform. I might not nick something straight away, but in ten years’ time I might think, ‘I’m gonna do that!’ Ha ha!
“It’s all about sharing and learning. Up in the North East where I’m from we have quite a small community and you end up knowing everybody really well, so you end up knowing exactly what people will be like to perform with.”
Did either of you have any amateur experience in pre-professional?
ST: “Because I was lucky enough to start working straight out of Central, the only thing I would have done before that was probably at school. There was a teacher there who was prepared to stay behind and put on plays, which is what got me hooked in. When I’m performing in this play I think of some of the good teachers as well as the bad ones. They would come across as just being stuck in a rut, which is what Frank is, and not enjoying having to teach to formula… formulated answers where there is no real room for individualism or flair.”
JJ: “Just youth theatre for me really. I did a year with the National Youth Theatre, which was very expensive for a working class family, but an amazing experience. It was my first time in London. I did mainly workshops and never got to perform with the NYT but I do know that the people who do take part are extraordinarily good. I saw Dancing at Lughnasa, Biloxi Blues and Oedipus, which was amazing. The rest of the time was spent performing whenever I could.
“My mum and dad used to have a guest house right next to the Sunderland Empire so we’d get a lot of performers coming to stay with us – and we’d end up getting lots of tickets. basically I spent a great deal of my youth going to the theatre and seeing ballets, comedians, cabaret as well as shows and plays. My dad built this hideous bar in one of the upstairs rooms, with palm trees and mirrors. And all the actors would come back for drinks. So, being around that as well as going to the theatre was really amazing, and they were all so interesting to me. Why wouldn’t I want to be one! I did walk away from it for a while, as I was really into my athletics while at senior school. That is until someone handed me a play one day which made me think. It’s a really difficult industry, especially when you come from a working class background. You feel you really need to earn your place at the table.
“But I’m not trained; I learned everything on the job, like the old-fashioned rep theatre way. I got a feature film in my early twenties, then did some TV and more film, tried London for a little while before enrolling at Newcastle College to do a degree. I did that because I started feeling a little out of my depth, but afterwards came out all guns blazing. I even set up my own theatre company.
“I know that Stephen won a big acting prize to do with BBC Radio around the time he left Central, and so he started to do a lot of radio. He performed hundreds of radio plays and got to work with some amazing actors and, as it was radio, it was very voice-focused. An amazing place for all kinds of writers, and training. He learned a lot at Central but during that time in radio he must have picked up so much. You don’t always get the luxury of having the time to read, but Stephen did and he proved it over time. He’s a very experienced and intelligent actor.”
How important was training for you as part of your career path?
ST: “Very important. My time at Central came straight after my A-levels. I did a Theatre Studies A-level which included The Crucible that year. The teacher decided to put it on and I got to play John Proctor – the first big, serious role I’d ever done up to that point. Mum and Dad thought that it’s all very well to audition for drama school but the odds are stacked against you from the start. Why not go to university first, get an English or Drama degree, and have something to fall back on, possibly teaching? But after they came to see The Crucible they said, ‘Scrub that; if you want to audition then go for it.’
“Central probably had one of the best reputations at the time and I got in on my first audition. Then for three years it felt a bit like an Aladdin’s cave; I was discovering all sorts… and lots of things I didn’t know about. I got a lot of training which I still keep with me now. I certainly remember it very, very fondly.
“Mind you, it’s also true that I’ve probably learned just as much on the job since leaving drama school, such as how to sustain things for a long run.
“You’re always learning and always training. It keeps you up and buzzing. The very nature of the job means we keep discovering new things. And performing all takes energy; she’s [Jessica] bouncing around the place while I’m putting lots of energy into trying to look like I’ve got no energy!”