RITA is sick of singing the same old boozy songs down the social club, and the banal chit-chat in the salon where she works.

But when she enrols on an Open University course, to broaden her horizons, she soon finds herself intimidated by all the confident young students sprawled around the campus.

Stumbling into her tutor’s office, a jumble of bookshelves concealing half-empty liquor bottles, the Liverpool hairdresser feels she no longer belongs back home, but doesn’t fit into the academic world either.

Frank, her jaded, borderline alcoholic tutor, initially has little faith in Rita’s ability to grasp English literature, but gradually the two of them take a quest of discovery and realise how much they can learn from each other.

It is nearly 40 years since Willy Russell wrote Educating Rita, and its themes of class, gender equality and self-expression are just as relevant.

Comedy, pathos and social comment are woven through this powerful, entertaining two-hander, beautifully performed by Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita. Refreshed and re-worked, with a hands-on presence by Russell during the rehearsal process, this is a production for our times, while retaining the sparkling lines of his original piece.

Set entirely within Frank’s study, the focus of the play is on the two performances, and the dialogue, shifting the balance of power between a frustrated academic and an uneducated hairdresser who has initially read little more than a dog-eared paperback potboiler. It was a treat to watch the two actors in action, their quickfire lines peppered with subtle asides and silences.

Tompkinson was terrific as Frank; a dishevelled cynic gradually emerging, with Rita’s encouragement, from his whisky-soaked retreat to return to his writing.

When we first meet Rita she’s hungry to learn, and charms Frank with her simple take on literary criticism. Explaining assonance, he concedes that it is, just as she says: “Getting the rhyme wrong”.

Johnson was a fabulous Rita, gliding from wide-eyed ingenue to confident young woman. Soaking up the books Frank lends her, her cultural odyssey extends to the theatre, where Shakespeare’s Macbeth hits her like lightning. “Wasn’t his wife a cow?” she gasps.

By Act Two, she’s soaring, casually referencing William Blake as if she’s been reading him all her life. She’s swapped the pencil skirt and heels for dungarees and, for the first time in her life, she has choices.

Funny, moving and uplifting, this show is a class act. It’s at the Alhambra until Saturday.