Forget Sir Lenny’s first-half blip. As good as his performance was, the night belongs to Lashana Lynch who positively dazzles as Rita, the Liverpudlian hairdresser desperate to secure for herself the knowledge she so envies.
In fact, she wants it all – and Lynch invests her Rita with all the greed of someone just waking up to the world of learning.
At first she’s gauche, incapable of pausing to think as she gabbles endlessly as fate leads her to the sticking door and cluttered office of Frank, a world-weary don (Lenny Henry) for whom all learning has long since lost all meaning. Almost immediately he is seduced by the hugely-appealing spark of her genuine curiosity, and here Lynch is at her best, offering a captivating sincerity in a world more given to learned pretension.
And that’s the beginning of the attraction, each the key to something the other needs – though the dynamic soon changes in the power game that follows. Has he created his own fair lady or a Frankenstein monster, Frank ponders, as Rita’s intellectual independence leaves him far behind while possibly, just possibly, robbing her of something of her vitality.
It’s touchingly done, Rita’s slightly-ambiguous rise matched by Frank’s thoroughly-unambiguous fall, increasingly prey to jealousy and the bottle – and this is where Sir Lenny is at his strongest in the part.
A brief struggle with his lines led to a brief exit from the stage, which left you wondering whether you’d really seen what you’d just seen. But it was hugely to Sir Lenny’s credit that after a moment or two off-stage to regain his thoughts, he returned to see it through. No mean achievement. But in a way, his struggle underlined not so much the demands of the part he was playing as the remarkable naturalness and fluency of the actor standing opposite him. Her progress beautifully charted through costume and hair-do, Lynch, so flowing and so expressive was the perfect Rita. Huge credit too to Michael Buffong for his consistently-assured direction.
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