Holly Lewis and Scott Bellis in Educating Rita. Photo by Murray Mitchell.
Holly Lewis and Scott Bellis in Educating Rita. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

It would seem George Bernard Shaw is all the rage in 2014.

As the Arts Club Theatre Company trots out Willy Russell’s 1980 Educating Rita at its Granville Island Stage, over on the alphabet network, a newer version of Shaw’s Pygmalion gets another workout with the new sitcom Selfie.

Of course, these are not the first times Shaw’s story has been adapted, with Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady probably the best known of the bunch. In all of these adaptations though, the story remains basically the same: a young woman is helped by a male mentor to somehow better herself.

In Educating Rita, the action revolves around the relationship between Rita, a 26-year old working class hairdresser from Liverpool and Frank, a middle-aged university lecturer. In Selfie, the two characters are more closely linked to Shaw’s original in name at least, as social media obsessed Eliza Dooley seeks the help of image guru Henry Higgs.

Even for those not familiar with Shaw’s play, or even its more famous musical adaptation, the plot is a pretty predictable one as the two inevitably clash, but ultimately learn and grow from each other. Because there are few surprises, a successful telling of its story must also rely heavily on the chemistry created between the two characters.

In the Arts Club production, the chemistry between Holly Lewis and Scott Bellis is as decent as their performances, but there is something that never quite rings true. That may be more of a result of Russell’s 34 year-old script that, despite apparently being updated to remove any 80s references, feels stale against the backdrop of our technology driven lives and 24-hour news cycles.  What feels even more out-of-touch though is how Russell simply accepts the unbalanced power dynamic that exists; that may have played in 1980, but it feels false today.

In Selfie, the connection between stars Karen Gillan and John Cho is also decent, but here creator Emily Kapnek takes Shaw’s central idea to an extreme where it is no longer about class. In Kapnek’s world, Eliza looks for change within a social media obsessed world where Facebook and Twitter become replacements for real life. In Selfie, Eliza and Henry are also equals and at times the power fully shifts to Eliza.  And while Selfie may sound terribly unsophisticated compared to Russell’s invocation of Shakespeare, Chekov and Ibsen, Kapnek’s self-obsessed world actually feels more relevant today.

It may be a generational preference from someone that can see both sides of this odd coin, but for my money it is Selfie that beats out Educating Rita. Selfie may not change the world, but it just feels more 2014.

No doubt Shaw will be turning in his grave about now.

(In a side note, due to a number of reasons, Bellis will only play Frank until October 3  after which Ted Cole takes over. Once Cole takes over the role he will be the fourth person to have been attached to the role since the show was originally cast. It is difficult to say what effect this had on the product we saw opening night, but it is safe to say it couldn’t have been easy.)

Educating Rita by Willy Russell.  Directed by Sarah Rodgers. An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Granville Island Stage until October 25.  Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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