Willy Russell gives blessing for South Shields theatre to stage Educating Rita

Educating Rita rehearsals at Westovian Theatre.
 Rita played by Laura Lonsdale and Frank played by Sean Kenney

Educating Rita rehearsals at Westovian Theatre. Rita played by Laura Lonsdale and Frank played by Sean Kenney

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A South Tyneside theatre group was hand-picked by a famous playwright to put on one of his best-known shows.

South Shields-based ION Productions had to seek permission from Willy Russell to stage Educating Rita.

Sean Kenney as Frank.

Sean Kenney as Frank.

The show is set to run at the Customs House, in the town’s Mill Dam, from Wednesday to Saturday.

It follows Rita, who dissatisfied with the routine of her work and social life, signs up for an Open University course in English literature.

It’s there that she meets tutor Frank, a middle-aged, alcoholic who took on the job to pay for his drink, and the two have an immediate effect on each other.

Producer Gareth Hunter, whose company has also staged the likes off The Cinder Path, Calendar Girls and Charley’s Aunt at the Customs House, said: “I applied to do the show and had to submit a CV for the company to show what we’d done before, and some reviews of our previous shows.

Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank.

Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank.

“He looked at that and obviously thought that this was a company that knows what they’re doing so he agreed to let us do the show.

“But then we had to find a director that he would approve as well. I immediately thought of Neil Armstrong, who I’ve worked with a few times before, and he submitted his CV to Willy Russell as well to show what kind of experience he had.

“All of the posters and flyers and everything like that have to go through Willy Russell before we can release them so it’s been a long, hard process, but it’s an absolute privilege to be staging this show and we can’t wait for opening night.

“Willy Russell sees this as his flagship play – it’s his baby – and for him to trust us with it is a real honour.

From left, Frank played by Sean Kenney, director Neil Armstrong and Rita played by Laura Lonsdale

From left, Frank played by Sean Kenney, director Neil Armstrong and Rita played by Laura Lonsdale

“Part of the agreement is that we have to keep seats for him or his representatives at every show.

“He’s got a reputation for turning up to see them and it would be great if he did, although it would put the pressure on the actors a lot more. Maybe he could just sneak in when the lights go down.”

The play was made into a famous film in 1983 starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, but Gareth says he prefers the story in its original format.

This production is set to star Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank.

From left, Frank played by Sean Kenney, director Neil Armstrong and Rita played by Laura Lonsdale

From left, Frank played by Sean Kenney, director Neil Armstrong and Rita played by Laura Lonsdale

Gareth, from South Shields, said: “In the film there’s a lot of Rita going out into the world around her, but in the play it all centres around Frank’s office at the university.

“I actually think that works better because everyone watching the play experiences it differently. Everyone will paint a picture of Rita’s husband in their head from the way she describes him and in a lot of respects I think the play is much stronger than the film.

“Sean and Laura do such a brilliant job. It’s just them in the show, and they barely leave the stage and they have some pretty heavy monologues.

“It’s a performance piece but a comedy with some lovely dialogue, and it’s an inspiring story about Rita breaking away from the mundane to explore the world and do something she really loves.”

The show runs at 7.30pm each night, as well as at 2.30pm on Thursday and Saturday.

Tickets cost £15 with a £13 concession. To book, go to www.customshouse.co.uk or call the box office on 0191 454 1234.

Rita played by Laura Lonsdale and Frank played by Sean Kenney

Rita played by Laura Lonsdale and Frank played by Sean Kenney

Frank played by Sean Kenney

Frank played by Sean Kenney

Rita played by Laura Lonsdale and Frank played by Sean Kenney

Rita played by Laura Lonsdale and Frank played by Sean Kenney

Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank

Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank

Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank

Laura Lonsdale as Rita and Sean Kenney as Frank