Review: Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court Theatre
Written for Everything Theatre
Will they, won’t they, will they? Uncertainty was the name of the game in the lead up to the opening night of Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court. The coproduction with Out of Joint was initially pulled by the Court over the involvement of the theatre company’s former Artistic Director Max Stafford-Clark, who resigned after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him late last year. The show was subsequently reinstated amid cries of censorship, and here we are.
If the offstage proceedings up until this point were somewhat fickle, there is no place for hesitation in the story itself. 15-year-old Rita and Sue know what they want, and what they want is to have sex with 27-year-old Bob, in his car, when he’s driving them home from babysitting his kids. Even if his penis does look like ‘a frozen sausage’. What follows is a frank, non-judgemental and often surprisingly funny depiction of the girls’ relationships – with Bob, with their families and with each other.
Playwright Andrea Dunbar’s semi-autobiographical piece premiered in 1982, when it was described in terms such as ‘hilariously raunchy’. Oh, how the times have changed, thank god. I can’t imagine anyone in a contemporary audience would even think those words in relation to a play about an older man exploiting two underage girls because he’s not getting any at home. Other aspects are depressingly familiar in this day and age, however; as soon as things start falling apart, everyone is eager to blame the girls for being sluts, their mothers for raising sluts and of course Bob’s wife Michelle, who didn’t put out often enough. The only innocent party, it seems, is Bob.
Despite its bleak sense of humour, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is not easy viewing, but Dunbar treads lightly. In many ways, it feels like you’re watching a documentary: she’s not telling us who is right or wrong. Instead, she’s showing us what it was to be a teenage girl in the eighties, in a town marred by industrial decline, when all you could aspire to was to have ‘your own house, a nice husband and a couple of kids’. In all that even-handedness, Dunbar does miss the opportunity to bring her points across a bit stronger. The connections between the different kinds of exploitation at play here – the girls are also working for peanuts at the local mill on the Youth Training Scheme, for example – are sketched in, rather than properly explored.
The cast are fantastic, with Taj Atwal as Rita and Gemma Dobson as Sue both turning in compelling performances. They’re an engaging if somewhat unlikely duo; Sue with the teenage power posturing, next to the more tentative Rita. Their relationship is, without question, the best thing about this play. And second best are the scenes they share with Bob’s frustrated wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson, excellent), whom they both hate and pity. The moment Michelle confides her suspicions about Bob having an affair with their previous babysitter in Rita and Sue is a masterpiece of awkward tension.
The sparse set consists of a skyline, its windows lighting up in the darkness of the scene changes, and four brown chairs. Supplemented by awful eighties clothes and hairdos, and excellent eighties music, it’s not a particularly inspiring design, but it does the job.
All in all, I’m happy the Royal Court got their act together on this one: Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a play I would not like to have missed.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 27 January 2018