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I had never seen the film Educating Rita (although I have bought it to watch after seeing this show). However, it was originally a stage show before being filmed for the big screen, so the touring production has gone back to its roots.

It’s written by Willy Russell (who also wrote Blood Brothers) so you know that there is going to be humour, sadness and poignancy in the script. For anyone not familiar with the story, Rita is a Liverpudlian hairdresser and housewife who feels there must be more to life and enrols on an Open University course in English Literature. Frank is her lecturer, a borderline alcoholic, disillusioned with his career. He underestimates Rita’s ability or willingness to learn, but as they work through the course, both of them ending up helping each other in different ways.

The show is a two hander – the only two members of the cast – Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson are on stage throughout the entire performance (save for the brief moments before and after Rita arrives and leaves her lessons. Its also set entirely in Frank’s study. So there is a lot of responsibility on the two actors to deliver – and deliver they do, in spades. Stephen Tompkinson is perfectly cast as Frank, and despite his issues you cannot help liking him, and more importantly believing in the character. Jessica Johnson was also extremely likeable and entirely believable as Rita, and the two bounced off each other very well.

The dialogue is at times razor sharp, but there is also pathos and both Frank and Rita’s back stories are laced with regret. Willy Russell seems to be able to get to the heart of the human psyche, and has done so brilliantly here. (For my money, this is a much more enjoyable play than Blood Brothers.)

Quite simply superb – if you get the chance to see this production, don’t miss it!

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Set in 1953/54, this film stars Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson, a graduate student from California, who takes a position teaching Art History at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.  The females under her tutorage are surprised by her subversive attitude (by their standards), and her progressive beliefs, as they all think that they are destined to be wives, mothers and nothing more.  The faculty are unhappy about her teaching methods, with the exception of Italian tutor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), a charismatic but irresponsible man who has a reputation for sleeping with his students, especially Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is clearly still stuck on him.  The main characters apart from Katherine and Bill are four students, namely Giselle; Joan (Julia Stiles), an intelligent young woman with a yearning to study Law, but who believes that a woman cannot have a career and marriage; Betty (Kirsten Dunst), a particularly spiteful young lady, who is a product of her overbearing mother; and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), a sweet-natured girl, who despairs of ever finding a man who loves her.

This film caught my eye purely because Dominic West is in it; as one of my favourite actors, he never disappoints, and as expected, was great here – as indeed was the whole cast.  All four of the main student characters were perfectly played, and I particularly liked Goodwin’s Connie.  Dunst was also outstanding as Betty, even if I could not stand her character for most of the film (nonetheless, her actions are understandable, if not excusable).  I’ve seen some reviews which suggested that Julia Roberts was not well-cast as Katherine Watson, but I beg to differ.  I enjoyed her in this more rounded and human role than some that she played earlier in her career, and enjoyed her chemistry with Dominic West.  Marcia Gay Harden and Juliet Stevenson were wonderful in supporting roles, as Katherine’s housemates, respectively another tutor, and the school nurse (who is fired for providing the students with contraception).

The film was inspiring too – there were some funny moments, and a surprising amount of tear-inducing scenes (I had to watch the last few scenes through my tears).  It was thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from the first scene to the last.  Very highly recommended.

Year of release: 2003

Director: Mike Newell

Producers: Joe Roth, Richard Baratta, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler

Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal

Main cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden

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As the title suggests, this book discusses the first women in Britain to attend university.  Broadly covering from the mid-late 19th century up until the second World War, it describes the opposition faced by prospective students, including doctors who believed that education could cause infertility (!), the belief that men would not want to marry an educated woman, and the widely held belief that women just did not need to be educated, when their sole purpose in life was to marry and have children.

Rather than giving a chronological account of how universities came to accept female students (it’s worth noting that Cambridge University would not award degrees to females until 1948, although females were allowed to study there prior to that date – Oxford beat them by 28 years by finally agreeing to award degrees to women in 1920), it focuses instead on what university life was like for women during the period covered, such as when women could only talk to men when there was a chaperone present, people would be expelled for extremely minor transgressions.

The book is packed with personal anecdotes, and includes many excerpts from the diaries and writings of former students.  As expected, there are some truly inspirational stories included, as well as some more sombre accounts of student life from those who were not happy with university life, and found themselves ill-equipped to cope with their new circumstances.  There are tales of families who struggled against convention and lack of finances, to send their daughter(s) to university to get an education, and stories of others who found help elsewhere.  It also makes the point that for a very long time, having a degree was not considered any advantage in looking for a career, unless you wanted to be a teacher – indeed it was practically expected that if a woman did pursue a career after her degree, it would be in teaching.

The book is inspiring and well written…definitely recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This non-fiction book was written after the author spent a number of months living with a family in Kabul.  The head of the family is Sultan Khan, a bookseller who has defied the authorities for years to sell books to the citizens of Kabul.  The book essentially describes normal life for the family, with each chapter concentrating on a different event or aspect of life.

The writing flows very easily and almost reads like a novel.  It’s constantly interesting, but always frustrating.  Sultan is liberal in many ways – he believes in encouraging knowledge and education, and is glad when women achieve governmental positions. He believes in banishing the uncomfortable burka, and is an intelligent and cultured man.  But for all that he believes would be good for society, he still treats his own family – particularly the females – as second class citizens.  He takes a second wife (a young teenage girl), although he already has a loyal and intelligent wife who is devastated at his choice to marry again, and his youngest sister Leila is treated as barely more than a slave, for little or no appreciation.

The oppression of women is a constant theme throughout the book.  For example, when a man decides that he wants to marry a particular woman, he has to approach her parents or the head of her family with his monetary offer for their daughter.  The potential bride has no say in whether she will marry the man or not.  Indeed, brides to be are not even supposed to look their husband in the eye prior to the wedding.

While I could not like Sultan, due to his treatment of his family, he was certainly an interesting character.  However, the character for whom I most cared was certainly Leila.  Reading about her life made me very thankful for my own life.

The book also features some interesting information regarding the history and culture of Afghanistan, and it’s easy to read style make this a book which I can heartily recommend to anyone who is interested in the country and the lives of those who dwell within it.

Shocking at times and always thought provoking – I definitely recommend this book, and will be keeping my eyes open for further work by this author.

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