Stephen Tompkinson stars in the UK tour of Educating Rita

A CHANCE meeting and a mutual love of Educating Rita was the spark for the major new production of the acclaimed Willy Russell play, which opens in Southampton next week.

Jessica Johnson will play Susan “Rita” White, the Liverpudlian hairdresser aiming for a better life at the Open University, opposite Stephen Tompkinson as her frustrated professor Frank Bryant.

And it all came about after a serendipitous meeting between the two leads when both were performing at Live Theatre in Newcastle.

Jessica said: “We crossed paths and got chatting, and I just said to Stephen I thought he would make an amazing Frank. I had just done a short run of Educating Rita in Durham at the Gala Theatre, and was telling Stephen how I’d love to get a longer run at this incredible role.”

Stephen, 53, adds: “It transpired it’s a play we’ve both loved for many, many years. So I went away and re-read the play, which I had been reading since I was 15. In fact a school friend and I used to rehearse it in my dad’s garage together, but of course I was way too young for the role back then. But re-reading the play I realised I’m now the right age to play Frank which was a little bit scary to begin with!”

It led Stephen, who had been performing in the acclaimed production of Yasmina Reza’s Art on a national tour, to broach the idea of doing something with Educating Rita in future with Art’s producer, David Pugh.

David loved the idea – and brought together Jessica and Stephen for a performance of the play in a hotel room in Bath in front of playwright Willy Russell’s daughter Rachel.

“We had a rather nervous performance of the play in a hotel room, to see if there were any legs in it and fortunately we passed with flying colours.”

Of the new tour starting in Southampton, Stephen and Jessica said they were really looking forward to being by the coast in July and are very impressed that Southampton is bidding to be City of Culture 2025. With two great theatres in the city, they wish Southampton the best of luck with the bid.

Educating Rita is at MAST Mayflower Studios from Tuesday (July 20) to Sunday July 24. Visit or call 023 8071 1833.