STAGE REVIEW: Educating Rita - at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, from Monday, August 5 to Saturday, August 10, 2019.

CAN it really be almost 40 years since playwright Willie Russell unleashed his huge stage and film hit about a livewire Liverpool lass with working class roots who wishes to find her true self and to better her life?

Delve back into the past and it was 1983 when Russell’s masterpiece provided the platform for Black Country born Julie Walters to set what many regard as the template for Rita in the film adaptation of this deliciously outstanding two-hander which initially premiered as a stage play in 1980.

This latest major touring production - which is just about at the end of a challenging trek around the UK - is still as hard-hitting and as humorous as it has been since day one, as Rita first encounters the whisky-loving varsity lecturer Frank - the man who will light the fire and add further fuel to her quest while she in turn refreshes his desire to teach.

As it has done over the years, Rita offers that considerably rare ability to provide a warm and feelgood factor with its ample blend of sentiment stirred with a little fun.

There’s plenty of passion too, if not all the emotions are kicked over and around to spark a variety of thoughts about the changes witnessed both in the home and at work, for women especially and their place in society, since those days of Maggie Thatcher’s tenure at Number 10.

It’s bright, breezy, witty and utterly captivating as Susan, or Rita as she prefers to call herself, enrols on an Open University course in English Literature.

Easy-going lecturer Frank suddenly has the cosiness of his study noisily invaded by a would-be student who is bubbly, batty but determined.

He likes a drink or two to the point of alcoholism, and he can be morose - if not depressed, and doesn’t really want to take on Open University responsibilities.

However, those feelings are swept away by the tidal wave that is Rita’s determination and ebullient personality as Jessica Johnson offers another memorable Rita and Stephen Tompkinson provides the perfect foil.

After the past four to five months on the road together the pair positively hit it it off like a house on fire with Tompkinson ensuring Frank is a most likeable lecturer in spite of his numerous foibles.

He is totally at home with a character who may appear a touch superior and self-important but is brought down to earth by rampant Rita, and by the end of their year together a warm and rich relationship has grown which has clearly impacted on the pair.

Clearly at ease with each other as they engage the audience from the off, he is a frustrated poet who is fluent and learned, and she a hairdresser capable of launching a torrent of words, one or two of which were difficult to make out, but there is no escaping the intensity and excitement she injected into events.

The timing is exceptional, with admirable wit and those telling glances from Tompkinson which cleverly set the tone - all aided by director Max Roberts’ astute direction.

There are moments Johnson’s performance might be striving to keep pace with Tompkinson’s and to her credit she succeeds in style on what is a simple yet successful one set of Patrick Connellan’s design that is Frank’s higgledy-piggledy study and its hidden stash of bottles.

Russell says when he writes it is to entertain and educate and Rita, quite clearly, lives up to that maxim.

And if one of Frank’s bottles can be found hidden on a bookshelf there are plenty who would raise a glass, or a cup, and drink to that...