Educating Rita is one of playwright Willy Russell’s most well regarded works, as well as one of the most popular works for the theater of the late 20th century. Russell based the play on his own experience of growing up in a working class environment in Liverpool and not attending college until his twenties. It is also influenced by the classic Pygmalion tale in which an older, cultured man shapes an uncouth young woman into a lady. Of his own experiences with education and how they influenced the writing of the play, Russell commented in an interview, “I didn’t set out to write an autobiographical play, but the parallels between Rita and me seem glaring now. I was a ladies’ hairdresser. I left school with one O-level and went back to get the education I’d not had. It was in writing Educating Rita that I realised the power of political theatre with a small p.”
It was first performed on June 10th, 1980 at the Royal Shakespeare Company Warehouse in London. Julie Walters played Rita and Mark Kingston played Frank. It then transferred to the Piccadilly Theater in the West End.
The play was turned into a very successful film in 1983 and starred Walters and Michael Caine; Russell adapted the screenplay and Lewis Gilbert directed. Russell famously told Gilbert not to have the two main characters kiss at the end of the film. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and received mostly positive reviews. Another version starring all black actors was proposed in the early 2000s, but nothing came of the project.
Russell adapted his play for radio in 2009, which starred Bill Nighy and Laura Dos Santos. Ninety minutes long, it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Boxing Day in 2009.
Revivals of the play took place in 2010, 2012, and early 2015; the lattermost performance was held in the Liverpool Playhouse. It garnered positive feedback, and on its contemporary resonance Russell explained, “Someone struggling to find something better is universal. Some people say that education is no longer seen as a route to something and that young people look to The X Factor instead, but I think that’s not true. It’s just a headline.”