Writer: Andrea Dunbar
Director: Kate Wasserberg
Designer: Tim Shortall
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play, later enlarged into a film, is the stuff of legends. Still a teenager, Dunbar had already had an earlier play, The Arbor, staged at the Royal Court. Both took a disconcertingly frank look at life on Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate where Dunbar grew up and where her troubled life ended a mere 10 years later.
The deprivation and hopelessness of life on the estate – and Dunbar’s own tragically short life – might lead to an expectation of gloom, desperation and soul-searching in the play. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rita, Sue and Bob Too is non-judgemental, full of life, quick-paced, foul-mouthed and often very funny. The famous opening scene, enthusiastically clumsy sex in a car with two underage girls, in turn, produced gales of laughter at the CAST.
The current tour of the play, originated at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, in association with Out of Joint, has had a troubled history, with Max Stafford-Clark, the original director of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, having to drop out of this production. However, there is no sign of uncertainty on stage. However much is Stafford-Clark’s original concept and how much Kate Wasserberg’s development and transformation of it, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is bursting with energy and vivid performances.
Slightly more problematic is the production’s relationship with the 1980s. Before Bob has his wicked way with the girls in the car, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love is the soundtrack to a clever, cartoonishly in-character dance sequence for all six actors and hits of the time punctuate the play, particularly in the smartly choreographed scene changes. It’s very imaginatively done, but there is a danger that it makes the play almost too light-hearted.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a surprisingly short piece, the film having added elements from The Arbor. It makes its point quickly, tells its story and gets out. Bob, taking his 15-year-old babysitters home, proposes sex and they eagerly agree, this becomes a regular thing, with fairly predictable consequences, even Bob’s credulous wife, Michelle, and the girls’ neglectful parents finally noticing and doing something about it. A final “What happened to them next?” scene lacks the vigour of most of Dunbar’s writing.
The great quality of the performances of Taj Atwal (Rita) and – in her stage debut – Gemma Dobson (Sue) is their ability to bring out the youth of the characters. They are curious, mischievous, oddly innocent, often acting in unison, but developing more individuality as the play progresses. As Bob James Atherton’s seedily ineffectual ordinariness makes clear that any worldly glamour the character might have is purely in the eyes of the girls. Michelle appears to be the most assured and successful character in the play and Samantha Robinson brings out both the superficial confidence and the underlying uncertainty. Sue’s parents, locked in mutual dislike, are drawn in rather caricatured terms, but the mix of Buttershaw realism and music hall stereotypes works in Sally Bankes’ and David Walker’s spot-on performances.
In Tim Shortall’s designs, Wasserberg’s pacy and unfussy production is set against a panorama of Bradford and two bleak tenement blocks, with a few chairs creating whatever scenes are needed.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed