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Catherine McGraffin in Educating Rita, photo by Clare Hawley

Review by Fiona Hart

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I think you can make a pretty good guess about a play by its cast. I have watched Catherine McGraffin in several different plays now, and she chooses her work well: they have been some of the strongest productions I have seen in Sydney. But it is as this eponymous heroine that she is her most endearing, her most talented, and her most enchantingly watchable. It is no wonder that Frank, Rita’s educator, is charmed by her – who wouldn’t want this Rita at your dinner party?

That is not to take anything away from Mark Kilmurry’s portrayal of Frank. Stepping into the role at the last minute when the original actor’s head was turned by a television offer, as the play’s Director (with a long string of acting credits to his name), Mark was an obvious choice. His Frank is clearly sharp, learned and infused with a love of literature, but at the same time pitiful enough for the audience to understand why Rita cannot take his affectionate throwaway comments seriously. Indeed, when the two meet outside of the scheduled tutorial times it is only ever successful when it is at Rita’s invitation – despite her deference to Frank as the authority figure, it is Rita who holds all of the power from the start. The staging reflects her slow awareness of this beautifully: initially Rita sits on the floor to write, or curls herself up into a small figure at the desk as she scribbles away while Frank lounges back in his chair, or conducts his teaching while standing. But as the play unfolds Rita’s posture does too: she sits proudly at the desk, talks of standing to ask questions, and ultimately physically directs Frank, telling him where to sit.

This play is a little gem in the heart of Sydney. The dialogue flows effortlessly, the set and lighting create the perfect ambience, and, while McGraffin undoubtedly steals the show, Kilmurry playing a drunk Frank is a delight to be seen.

‘Educating Rita’ is on at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until 28th June 2015