Viv Hardwick finds that Jessica Johnson is the perfect choice when it comes to Educating Rita as a North-East student

FORGET the scouse twang of Willy Russell’s 1983 international hit Educating Rita, the 2017 version is not only North-East to the core but features Sunderland lead Jessica Johnson, who, like Julie Walters’ memorable film role, turned to further education as a mature student to get a degree.

“I always wanted to tell Rita’s story because I left school without a single GCSE or any other qualification and just plodded through for a while. Getting my degree was probably, besides my children, the proudest moment of my life. The cap and gown thing and everything made me realise that I was the first person in my family to go to university,” says Johnson.

She attended Newcastle College, but took three attempts to complete her education having started as a 16-year-old. “I left to have my daughter and went back again to try a Btec, but left to have a son. I gave up for a while and finally went back at 23 and was asked. ‘Are you going to stay this time?’”

Completing her courses at 26, Johnson studied acting and directing and still recalls the intimidating nature of Newcastle University, where she collected her degree, which looked “posh and fancy”.

“I was never one for school. I used to skiv off all the time. I’m underclass. I’m lower than working class. I know this and I’m quite proud of it. I had a rough upbringing and education fits you in, just like Rita, to be a social climber. I’m middle class now. I’ve got a degree and a mortgage... and I live in Whitley Bay,” she adds.

Rita’s route to educational fame and fortune involves Open University professor and alcoholic Frank Bryant, played by Patrick Driver, agreeing to take on ambitious hairdresser Susan “Rita” White.

Durham’s Gala Theatre has put Rita’s return to the stage in the hands of Newcastle-based director Rebecca Frecknall.

“I think Educating Rita has never gone out of style politically, even though education has a price-tag on it now. I’m not sure how much an Open University degree costs these days, but that might change the relationship because there is so much money at stake.

“When I went to uni myself I was a mature student and it was almost like the film. I spent a fortune on my course and I’ll be paying if off probably for the rest of my life.

“I was in The Fighting Bradfords last year which was the first in-house production at the Gala in six years. It’s fantastic to be back. There were rumours that Educating Rita was going to be the follow-up play and I got hold of Robin Byers (the Gala’s programming and operations manager) and told him, ‘I’d really, really, like to be seen for this.

“I’ve known about this work since I was 14 and always used a piece for my auditions. I just wanted to be seen, that was the important part,” says Johnson.

She was fascinated by Russell’s speech for Rita where she can no longer speak to the people she lives with any more and can’t talk to her new acquaintances because she doesn’t know their “language”.

“She had been invited to a party at Frank’s house but couldn’t bring herself to go inside. You could actually pick out any one of many pieces that are beautifully written,” she says.

Johnson admits her move into education has allowed her to learn the etiquette of how to blend in and fit in. “You see it in the play with Rita where she’s faced with ‘Do you know how to behave yourself in a particular environment? When can you swear and when can’t you? I think there are also times when a working class person is judged more harshly than somebody else who is in education,” Johnson says.

The tipping point regarding acting was when the young cross country fan decided against going into the army after seeing the Buddy Holly musical at Sunderland Empire.

“It’s one time I remember all of my family being together and happy. I went on to the Royalty Theatre and the Kathleen Davis Stage School and fell in love with acting. Then I was a mam doing bar jobs. I then got a role in the Newcastle film School for Seduction and didn’t really know what I was doing. I rather blagged my way in and it catapulted me into a world where I was clueless. That was why I went back to uni with the full intention of learning my craft and to be taken seriously as an artist,” she says.

“I’ll always remember that film for being good for what it was, and a kind of female Full Monty with Kelly Brook, God love her. But I didn’t even have a GCSE in drama at that point. Saying that, I did a cracking job mind,” adds Johnson, who has also featured in North-East-based Open Clasp theatre company productions.

She also enjoyed playing several strong female roles in The Fighting Bradfords, which told the true story of a family of First World War heroes from the region. “I like the fact that the mam and Nancy the wife were feisty and had almost-modern relationships. It was an incredibly interesting piece and I also got a play a soldier,” she says.

The mother-of-three puts the blossoming of her acting career down to having an amazing husband, but admits, “I don’t know how we manage sometimes to balance our diaries. It helps that my daughter is 17, but we have a little one aged three. None of them are interested in acting. My daughter is more interested in sailing and recently took part in the Tall Ships in Blyth,” she says.

Educating Rita runs from Tuesday, April 4, to Saturday, April 8, at Durham Gala Theatre. Box Office: 03000-266600 or galadurham.co.uk