It’s hard to watch Rita, Sue and Bob Too without thinking about the tragic premature death of playwright Andrea Dunbar. There is also a challenge in looking back at the world of Margaret Thatcher’s early 1980s Britain from the viewpoint of a Theresa May modern audience.
That this splendid production succeeds brilliantly is testament to the authentic realism and genuine voice that still survives, despite the altered attitudes that would now have to dominate scenes of sexual encounters with minors.
An opening introduction to characters lip synching to the Soft Cell classic version of Tainted Love firmly sets the scene before the real action starts with a hilariously shocking bare buttock and ball-swinging seduction of two teenage girls in the front seat of Bob’s car. The shock comes not so much from the almost literally ‘in your face’ portrayal of sex, but the non-judgemental attitude of both girls. They imply that this is what happens round here, and guess what, it’s a great laugh!
Bob is not portrayed as a paedophile but a libido set loose, and his real conversations with the girls show that he is genuinely interested in their lives. Well at least up until they get on with what they “came here to do in the first place”. There is much effective synchronised laughter and mannerisms from both girls, but their own individuality and characterisation is subtly evident. Dominating throughout is a clear setting of time and place. Tim Shortall’s set with tower blocks rising up on the sides of the stage is softened by a backdrop of Bradford seen from above up on the moors. It could almost be a pastoral scene, but the grim blocks force us to see the estate dominating lives and the way it is lived.
Max Stafford-Clark directed the original production and co-directs here with Kate Wasserberg for Out of Joint in his last production for the company. Together they have deliberately chosen to root the revival in its own time, avoiding any temptation to update the tone for modern audiences. As Andrea Dunbar’s daughter has said, if Rita and Sue were around now they would probably be smackheads
Taj Atwal as Rita and Gemma Dobson, making an impressive professional stage debut as Sue, utterly convince with their 15 year old naivety and the fun that can be had from having a ‘jump’ with James Atherton’s lecherously grinning Bob. Both girls are happy to literally go along for the ride – and not just in the back seat of his car after an evening’s babysitting.
That they are the ultimate victims, along with wife Michelle, played pitch perfect by Samantha Robinson, almost seems too obvious to comment upon, but the message is delivered powerfully. Of the women only the superb Sally Bankes as Sue’s battle axe foul-mouthed Mum emerges unscathed, although she looks like she’s lost enough other battles in her time.
Great revivals deserve a new audience and the surprise is that the shocks still resonate. Thanks Andrea, you are missed. ★★★★☆ Bryan Mason at Bristol Old Vic 4th October 2017
Photo Credit : The Other Richard