Paul Holmes and Sarah Robinson in Educating Rita | Reginald Theatre

From the first beat, this production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita chugs along, like the little train that thought it could. The legendary Cypriot goldsmith, Pygmalion, has come a long way since Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But the statue carved here may give pause for deeper reflection.

This joint venture between Seymour and Paul Holmes Productions is a damn sight more difficult to fall in love with than Pygmalion’s carved-in-stone woman. So much is this the case that it raises serious questions about any semblance of quality assurance one might rely upon where Seymour is concerned, at east in its downstairs theatre. The last production in The Reginald was appalling. This would struggle to match the pointy end of amateur.

Russell’s take on ancient myth came in 1980 and, while his characters are exceptionally well-drawn, they do have something of that decade hanging about them. Regular readers might know of my hobbyhorse as regards accents: when and when not to use them. While one can’t really imagine, for example, My Fair Lady without the very particular dialects sported by Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, there’s no reason why Dr Frank Bryant couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be a professor in an Australian university; nor why Susan (Rita) isn’t a hairdresser from, say, Sydney’s outer western suburbs. Instead we have to endure the creditable but, nonetheless, less than perfect put-ons of Paul Holmes and Sarah Robinson. Holmes sounds only passably, or notionally, British and we get the message more from context than any particular success on his part. Robinson makes a much more convincing fist of it, but still drifts in and out of her Liverpudlian brogue.

There are stumbles and fluffed lines: not the stuff of opening nights. This isn’t to say Holmes or Robinson are poor actors. Far from it. But they did seem somewhat under-rehearsed. And the production never really gets up to speed. It’s as flat as the Nullarbor and, as a result, seems almost as endless, despite a reasonable running time. I lay most of the blame for lack of momentum at the feet of the director.

The set, too, while mining the general aesthetic of the stuffy professor’s airless, old school office, as well as mirroring his personal dishevelment, wasn’t well-crafted; it seemed as if the designer was hoping (in vain) we wouldn’t spot the devil in the details.

Despite lack-lustrousness, thankfully, there’s still a fine play on which to focus. Taken right back to its ancient genesis, this work is most interesting not only for its older-man-falls-for-much-younger-woman vanity, but for the even greater vanity of this man whose egocentricity is so unbridled he acts, albeit unwittingly, as a veritable god, (re)creating this woman in his own image. Or so he thinks. But like all children of gods, she goes in an unbidden direction.

It’s this tension between what they both know about themselves (and each other) and what they don’t, as well as what they discover about themselves and each other, that is the underlying, unuttered erudition of Russell’s recapitulation of age-old themes. Its understatement is its sophistication.

What a pity, then, it couldn’t have been dealt with more sensitivity and skill.

The details: Educating Rita plays the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until June 8. Tickets on the venue website.