William Russell was born on the outskirts of Liverpool on this day 23 August in 1947, he is a very talented dramatist, writer, lyricist and composer. He left school, aged 15 to become a hairdresser, but at 20 he decided to go to Saint Katherine’s College in Liverpool and qualified as a teacher. At the same time Russell also worked as a semi-professional singer, writing and performing his own songs.
At college, he began writing drama, his first play was Keep Your Eyes Down (1971) performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1971, the following year at the Fringe, writer John McGrath spotted him and recommended Russell to the Liverpool Everyman, which commissioned When The Reds…, Russell’s first professional work for theatre. Russell’s breakthrough work, also commissioned by The Everyman, John Paul George Ringo…and Bert, transferred to the West End winning Best Musical – Evening Standard and London Theatre Critics Awards.
Russell’s work is characterised by its engagement in what he has described as ‘the poetry of common speech’, characters are working class, often finding themselves in difficult circumstances, but there is humour throughout. Shirley Valentine (1988) and Educating Rita (1981) are Russell’s two most successful plays, which also became hit films. Both feature strong female lead characters, essentially about escape and self-transformation.
Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Educating Rita is now a modern classic. Since its 1980 premiere and long West End run, the play has been translated and produced in almost every part of the globe. Returning to the Liverpool Everyman in 1986, Willy Russell created the iconic Shirley Valentine which went on to an acclaimed West End run, earning Olivier awards for both its author, Willy and star, Pauline Collins, before transferring to New York for a highly successful Broadway run and a Tony Best Actress award for its star, Pauline Collins.
Willy Russell’s other worldwide theatrical success has been Blood Brothers, ‘a Liverpudlian folk opera’ about a pair of twins separated at birth and brought up in completely different environments. He wrote the lyrics and score for this musical which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1983 and its 1987 revival saw over 10,000 consecutive performances during it’s 24 year West End run. Simultaneously, UK touring and international productions including a 2 year run on Broadway.
The Wrong Boy (2000), was Russell’s first novel, ten years in the making, is one of the most memorable books of recent years. In Raymond Marks, he created a character who is more than ready to stand alongside Rita and Shirley Valentine. In 2004 Willy Russell returned to his singer/songwriter roots, releasing his own album, Hoovering The Moon which he toured with Tim Firth ending at the Edinburgh Fringe, a unique mix of music and spoken word that became known as The Singing Playwrights.
A recent production of the play Educating Rita was at the Rose Theatre London
and here is the link to the now famous film based on the stage play staring Michael Caine & Julie Walters just in case you have never seen it!