Writer: Andrea Dunbar
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewer: Richard Hall
In its special 50th anniversary season, Bolton’s Octagon theatre has teamed up with Out of Joint and London’s Royal Court Theatre to revive this classic 1980’s coming of age play. Playwright Andrea Dunbar was discovered by Max Stafford-Clark when he was running the Royal Court and was only 19 when she wrote this semi-autobiographical play. Premiering in 1982 it was directed, as it is for this production, by Stafford-Clark. Last week he announced that after twenty four years he is to step down as Artistic Director of Out Of Joint. As one of the true greats of 20th Century British Theatre, it is fitting that Stafford-Clark has chosen to co-produce this production with the Octagon, which for many years has tirelessly supported his work.
Set on a rough council estate, similar to the one in Bradford that Dunbar grew up on, Rita, Sue And Bob Too, is a gritty and penetrating insight into the lives of two working class teenage girls struggling to find their way in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. As a champion of social justice and young writing talent, it is easy to see why Stafford-Clark was originally attracted to this play, as it combines a hefty dose of social realism with a generous sprinkling of razor sharp wit and touching comedy.
When fifteen year old best friends Rita and Sue are given a lift home by married man Bob after babysitting his kids, they start an affair with him that provides a brief, thrill-seeking, no holds barred adult adventure and a temporary escape from a bleak, uncertain future. The first ten minutes of the play are given over to a graphic sex scene involving Bob and the underage girls and what was certainly considered shocking in the 1980s, now in the wake of recent grooming scandals, arguably feels more so. Stafford Clark admits that Dunbar has created, “an alarming world,” but to criticise the play because of recent events would be to miss its point, which is to view the world through a teenager’s uncomplicated, honest gaze. Dunbar has her own distinctive and unique voice and it feels as relevant and important today as it was when the play was first performed.
Stafford-Clark and the Octagon have assembled a strong cast for this production which is headed by Taj Atwal as Rita and Gemma Dobson as Sue. Both actresses are superb and wring out every ounce of comedy and pathos from Dunbar’s raw and uncompromising script. Dobson, making her professional stage debut is especially impressive. James Atherton as Bob is sufficiently sleazy and sultry but at times lacks charisma to fully convince in the role. Solid support is provided by Sally Barnes and David Walker as Rita’s mum and dad and Samantha Robinson as Bob’s estranged wife.
The production is deftly directed by Stafford-Clark and is performed on a simple but highly versatile set by Tim Shortall that is dominated on either side of the stage by two high rise flats and a panoramic screen depicting open countryside. Occasionally the relentless use of 1980’s pop songs to underscore scene changes jars but otherwise this is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking production and is a great start to the Octagon’s anniversary season.
Runs until Saturday 23 September 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport