FIRST, the bad news. Rita, Sue and Bob Too draws to a close this Saturday at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Tickets are still available – two shows on Saturday – so catch it if you can.
Now, the good news. The play then transfers to Huddersfield and Mold before finishing in Glasgow with the final curtain coming down on February 17. Again, if you live anywhere near these fine locations, I implore you to get yourself a ticket.
Although the play may seem a little dated – 1982 – it remains a brilliant piece of work, written by 19 year old Andrea Dunbar who tragically died of a brain haemorrhage at the all too young age of 29.
Auto-biographical (shockingly so) and set in Bradford, it tells the story of two friends – Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) – who at age 15 are seduced by 27 year-old Bob (James Atherton).
They are babysitters for Bob and wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson) and Bob gets his evil way while en route to driving them home. Not once but on countless occasions thereafter (we are spared most of the afters).
It is all rather seedy – Sue first, Rita second- with the sex taking place in the car, seats folded down (no gear stick to get in the way). Condoms are filled and casually thrown away. You should marvel at Bob’s prowess (and his posterior) but you cannot given the girls’ age. The fact that Rita and Sue are not the virgins Bob thought they were (or are they?) makes little difference. Sex crimes galore.
Of course, the three-some starts cracking as Bob (insatiable) has secret assignations with Rita and Sue individually. Michelle also becomes suspicious which is not surprising given a ten minute trip to take home Rita and Sue drags into hours. Bob also has previous – he is a serial philanderer and even deflects Michelle’s attention off the girls by saying he has been seeing an ex. Devoted? Yes. Mad? Maybe. Michelle should have long flung him out onto Bradford’s streets.
Into the melting pot are thrown Sue’s parents – gobby Mum (Sally Bankes) and drunken Dad (David Walker). They spend most of their time hurling verbal lumps of concrete at each other. When not trading heavyweight punches, Mum is giving Sue sound advice. Dad is just a nasty piece of work.
Things come to a crescendo when word gets out about Bob’s trysts with the girls. It all gets messy as Rita discovers she is pregnant with Bob (earlier in the play, she says to Sue that she does not want to have a child until she is aged 25). There are fallouts, reconciliations and a divorce although the play does end on a happy note with Sue discovering that Rita has named the child after her.
The play has courted plenty of controversy with the Royal Court initially deciding to cancel the show on the grounds it was ‘highly conflictual’, only to then reinstate it. Max Stafford-Clark, director, was also forced to leave the production mid-rehearsals as a result accusations of past sexual misconduct.
But the decision to run, not hide, has proved right. Although the sexual undercurrent will upset some – and how it is treated in a laissez faire way by Dunbar in her writing – it is a reminder that paedophilia is not just a modern crime. It was as big an issue back in the 1980s, but society’s response was different. Hide rather than confront.
Thankfully, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is not just a play about under age sex. It is a sharp reminder of the economic turmoil in the early years of Margaret Thatcher, when jobs were scarce and poverty rife. Indeed, Bob is a victim as he is forced to sell his shag-mobile because he cannot get enough work. Both Rita and Sue spill out of school into a Youth Training Scheme where they are exploited and see their hours out.
All this turbulence is interspersed with some slowed down tunes of the time – Culture Club, David Bowie, Soft Cell et al. And despite the awful economic backdrop – and paedophilia – there is enough humour to stop you searching your pockets for anti-depressant tablets. Honest.
What makes the play so watchable is the quality of the cast. Dobson is quite remarkable given it is her theatrical debut. Indeed, the chemistry between Dobson and Atwal (well cast, ensuring the audience is reminded of the recent Asian child sex abuse rings) is endearing. They are cheeky, direct and to the point.
‘What do you think of him then Rita?’ asks Sue. ‘I think he’s great. He can’t half go like the clappers,’ responds Rita. ‘I know,’ says Sue. ‘He’s certainly not straight on and off. One thing’s for sure, he certainly gives a lass a good time.’ Laugh? Cry? Cringe? A bit of each.
Bankes and Walker make a great double-act – Bradford’s answer to Coronation Street’s squabbling couple of yesteryear, Hilda and Stan Ogden. Robinson and Atherton are also superb.
Despite what Bob is up to, Atherton gives him a slice of charm which you might think he does not deserve but you cannot help but like. A likeable monster. Robinson makes a great scorned wife although what possesses Bob to discard such an attractive partner defies logic. Not enough sex? Boredom? He should have tried a lot harder – Michelle was not a part-time Avon Lady for nothing.
Tim Shortfall’s set is minimalist – quite literally, the four car seats where Bob has his wicked way – but it is all the better for it.
With Kate Wasserberg directing with aplomb, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a success. Of course it treads a fine line but surely that is the purpose of theatre? To challenge and to provoke?