Review: Educating Rita, Theatre by the Lake , Keswick

“Education, education, education" was how Tony Blair set out his priorities as he campaigned to be elected in 1997.

It gave people choices in what they did in life. Opportunities.

Some 17 years earlier, Willy Russell had written almost exactly the same thing in his comic two-hander.

Telling the story of working class Scouse lass desperate to escape life as a hairdresser, she enrols in an Open University English literature course and is teamed up with Frank as a lecturer.

A former poet, he is washed up and washed out by whiskey. He’s taken on the position to pay for all the booze hidden in his book-infested study.

Rita is driven to learn and Frank is shocked and smitten by her dynamism and determination.

Jessica Johnson as Rita is a fizzing ball of attitude and energy, hungry to change her life, whatever the cost.

Stephen Tompkinson is perfect as the careworn lecturer. Best-known for his TV roles, much is expected of him and he delivers, providing arrogance, grace and fragility in Frank.

As she improves, he declines. She rises in self-esteem, he sinks to the bottom of a bottle.

Alongside the jokes there is plenty of social commentary about the despair of the neglected working classes.

As well as it is acted, it is the script that is the real star. It still froths and flows and sounds new and immediate. Perhaps that is the greatest compliment for Tompkinson and Johnson who are a superb team.

The second half is more a powerplay of their personalities and drilling home the message that life is all about choices, choices, choices.

Russell’s play is a feel-good story with lots of laughs and this production, directed by Max Roberts with a fabulous set from Patrick Connellan and co-produced by the theatre, is fresh and relevant.

Its message about education and of the daily struggle of an underclass is still just as valid today as it was 40 years ago.

The run here is sold out. The play goes on tour and deserves to sell out everywhere.