It was the play that nearly didn’t happen. After the Royal Court’s founder Max Stafford-Clark was accused of sexual misconduct, a decision was made to cancel the upcoming production of Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which centres around the relationship between a married man and two 15-year olds in Bradford. The theatre said that putting on the play would be “highly conflictual” given the current climate, which is revealing the grubby undercarriage lurking beneath the shiny facade of the arts industry. After intense pressure, however, they reversed the decision. It was the right move.
Dunbar was a singular voice in the world of British theatre before her untimely death at 29, and Rita, Sue and Bob Too reminds us of this – the actors all seem to relish her verbatim-esque dialogue, which manages to be humorous and heart-breaking in equal measure. Gemma Dobson and Taj Atwal are brilliant as the two schoolgirls caught up in the plot – they perfectly embody the cruelty that such an age group can engender, as well as the gaping insecurities that are the root cause. Dobson’s Sue possesses a disarming sense of confidence, but has to face an abusive father at home, while Atwal’s Rita is the more conflicted of the two regarding their situation. Atwal manages to brilliantly convey the yearning for belonging so common at that age – sending out vague smoke signals of her underlying emotions as a means of testing the water, lest she find herself exposed.
Between them there’s Bob, played by James Atherton: a young man trapped within a marriage he dislikes, he knows how much (or little) attention he needs to pay to Rita and Sue to get them involved. Within the cramped car in which his character has sex with Sue and Rita, Atherton is able to bring a sense of physical comedy to the role, providing the audience with plenty of conflicting emotions as we begin to sympathise with him.
Before the house lights went down, the woman behind me mentioned the film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Directed by Alan Clarke in 1987, the film was described by my neighbour as “a bit of a light romp”. The version we watch is anything but. Director Kate Wasserberg is well aware of the conflicts and tension at the heart of Dunbar’s text. This becomes most apparent near the beginning of the play: as Bob takes Rita and Sue back home, he begins to ask increasingly inappropriate questions, before eventually having sex with each of them in turn. Atherton, Dobson, and Atwal all make use of the four small chairs that serve as the set, contorting themselves against each other as Bob’s buttocks jerk up and down. It’s a funny scene, in the way we instinctively laugh at wibbling bottoms. But then the house light slowly come up, and the scene drags on for an uncomfortably long length of time. Go on, Wasserberg seems to be saying, look, and laugh if you can.
“The actors all seem to relish Dunbar’s dialogue, humorous and heart-breaking in equal parts”
What seems shocking and daring about Dunbar’s play is not so much the sexual aspect – indeed, it was based partly off her own experiences, and the current wave of accusations of misconduct show us that men taking advantage of women in lesser positions of power has never gone away – but rather the way she centres the working class voice, specifically those of women. Besides Sue and Rita we’ve got Bob’s long-suffering wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson), and Sue’s mother (Sally Bankes), as well as Rita’s single mother – mentioned but never glimpsed. Through this cast of characters, Dunbar is able to portray the chilling nature of a life of gradually receding opportunities: for Rita and Sue, the most important thing is to not get pregnant. As Sue’s mother hauntingly “I was 23 years old when I had my first. I felt trapped. When you’ve had a baby it’s not a thing you can put to one side and say ‘I’m going to the pub tonight’. That freedom is gone”.
The Royal Court’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too is not an enemy of the #MeToo movement. Far from it. It might be one of the cultural artefacts that proves the best response to the current climate. Through raising up the voices of disadvantaged women, exploring the invisible traps that keep them engaged within a cycle of tragedy, Rita, Sue and Bob Too provides us with a generous, difficult, complex, brilliant exploration of power in its many forms.
Where? Royal Court When? Until 27th January How Much? From £12