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FringeReview UK 2018

Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Royal Court Theatre

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs


Low Down

Kate Wasserberg now helms this superb revival alone. Tim Shorthall’s simple seat and backdrop set with a house-front stage left ensures dispatch and economy. Jason Taylor’s lighting completes a minimal, unfussy sweep. We need nothing else. Till January 27th.


Andrea Dunbar in her short life was a casualty of many things she portrays in her perennially urgent 1982 play Rita, Sue and Bob too – not least dropping dead from a brain haemorrhage at 29: she never could quit the Buttershaw estate in Bradford she grew up in. However this touring revival being removed for two days from the Royal Court schedule is almost too rich an irony.


Infamously the original (and till October, co-current) director Max Stafford Clark’s conduct seems to have echoed Dunbar’s male characters and his resignation wasn’t deemed enough by the Court to cleanse this production. Other venues didn’t pull but they weren’t mounting those conversations the Court commendably has: exploring the kind of abuse former Court director Stafford Clark is now accused of. Thankfully Vicky Featherstone reversed her decision. Not to do so would in a sense have re-abused the very things Dunbar voiced. We hear of the stifling of potential working-class actors. Even worse is the lack of dramatic voices: few have succeeded Dunbar. There is now silence. Don’t think any of this has really dated.


Kate Wasserberg now helms alone: it’s somehow more relevant than the more magnificently-orchestrated Road recently and deserving of cleaner lines. Tim Shorthall’s simple seat and backdrop set with a house-front stage left ensures dispatch and economy. Jason Taylor’s lighting completes a minimal, unfussy sweep. We need nothing else.


Rita and Sue are two 15-year-olds babysitting for attractive opportunist Bob, 27. In 1982 jail looms just as much for under-age sex as now, though with less publicity. Yet the exuberant already-experienced girls aren’t simple victims either, and Dunbar’s at pains to prove even Bob isn’t a paradigmatic groomer or abuser. It’s a subtle verbal transaction though and this is a man fully twelve years older than the girls he’s seducing – indeed instant manipulative grooming is graphically in evidence.


Momentarily stumped by the girls’ pretence of virginity when asked he slides on to the subject of Durex-fitting with a surprisingly articulate sex-education talk: the kind the girls should have had. Their demand he continually translate into the vernacular is both a creepy witness of his control of sophisticated language, and their control of it, demanding that translation.


Rita and Sue are perfectly happy to enjoy sex and swap places whilst Bob’s buttocks tauten as he and his partners gasp on stage. There’s nothing particularly coercive and as Thatcher’s Britain rumbles with job-cuts we see it affects Bob’s performance, much to the girls’ chagrin. Though the focus is on the trio, Bob’s sexually beached wife Michelle and Sue’s parents complete a greater articulation of adult pressures and we end with Michelle and Sue’s Mum in a bar.


Samantha Robinson’s Michelle is the chief casualty; Robinson plays up the pregnant-married-at-eighteen beauty with a vulnerable resilience that often shifts our sympathies. Dunbar sketches in her love for her casually abusive, sexist husband (ironing jeans, making sandwiches on the spot) underneath her vinegarish exchanges and sexual froideur. We realise Bob’s adultery has taken a toll that’s rarely healed and the momentary welling-up of emotional and sexual happiness is achingly revealed, just at the point where Bob scotches it and exhibits his worst traits. You think it’s a manoeuvre to spend more time with the girls. It isn’t. It’s un-thought-through abuse.


Gemma Dobson as Sue makes a ringing debut as the robust Sue, and Taj Atwal’s more vulnerable Rita is a calibration of insouciance to devastated commitment. The shifts between these two are touchingly observed, and James Atherton’s Bob, however charismatic, can’t quite break into their private world. His performance too exudes a mix of attractive raffishness and downright dinosaur, but tragically the kind going out with rusty machinery.


David Walker’s even rustier. Depending on Bob for work he’s a redundant father, partner and breadwinner. Walker’s bewildered furies die through the play, where Sally Bankes’ Mum shows a command of situation and where needed, Sue. Not that she invariably wins, but even in rollers (for 1982, even in Bradford, a slight anachronism) she shows a rare sympathy for Sue’s sexual freedom, though doesn’t guess the whole truth. The bar scene trio at the end rings with the poignancy of dramas Dunbar never lived to write.


A first-class revival of a timely, still-urgent play, from an untimely-ripped dramatist, this is a must-see for anyone who cares about British drama, British history, and its now more thoroughly-beleaguered people.