Writer: Andrea Dunbar
Director: Kate Wasserberg
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Before it was the 1987 cheeky cult film that every northern teenager talked about, Rita, Sue and Bob Too was a 1982 Royal Court new writing hit.
Written by Andrea Dunbar when she was just 18, the play is a starkly realistic story of two 15-year-olds and their on-going sexual relationship with an older married man. It’s threesomes in the car when he drives them home after they’ve been babysitting, and a series of one to one secret meet-ups between school, work and family life. Not that any of them have much of a family life. Rita’s Dad is long gone, Sue’s folks do nothing but bait each other, and Bob’s marriage is getting tired after just a few short years of parenthood.
This timely revival of the play that became the film with the strapline ‘Thatcher’s Britain With Her Knickers Down’ says something about just how far we have come in the nearly 40 years since the play’s first performance. Written now, this story would be heavy with judgement, but Dunbar writes with what now feels like a refreshing neutrality on the subject, leaving the audience to judge whoever they choose to. This lightness of touch, juxtaposed with the weight of the subject, easily makes the play as relevant today as it was when it was written.
If there’s any question about the play’s power, Out of Joint’s production, which revived the play at the Royal Court in 2017, has not been without controversy. When allegations of sexual harassment in the theatre industry landed right on the company’s doorstep, the Royal Court decided to cancel, then reconsidered in the light of accusations of censorship. Truths we don’t like to think about don’t go away if we don’t look them in the eye. After all, Dunbar herself explained the play as simply “telling the truth”.
It’s a stripped back production with a simple set and six characters. Gemma Dobson (Sue) and Alyce Liburd (Rita) are suitably young and fresh-faced which makes their painfully world-weary matter-of-factness all the more heart-breaking. A cramped and loveless “jump” in a reclining car seat is the highlight of their dreary week. Director Kate Wasserberg has created the most brilliant sex scenes that set the tone of the play in the first five minutes. The sight of Sue’s still-socked legs wrapped around Bob, and his jiggling bare bottom are both completely hilarious – and horribly bleak.
Given the length of the production (one hour 20 with no interval) and the simple (and very sweary) script, the characters do feel a little one dimensional. Both Dobson and Liburd, though, manage to create convincing characters out of the limited amount they have to play with. John Askew’s Bob has limited charm, but enough to make the seduction scenario believable. To Sue and Rita he’s a man who’s achieved a perfect life – he has a house, a wife, kids. He certainly becomes a little less attractive to them when he suggests he might have to get rid of his car.
This simple play is one loaded with questions. It was in 1982, and it is now. It’s candid and upfront without offering judgement or solutions. It tells it how it is. An increasingly rare thing.
Runs until 13 April 2019 | Image: Hana Kovacs