Some plays quickly date within a few years; others grow in stature and relevance over the years. We hadn’t seen the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too so all I knew to expect was two young girls/women having an affair with an older man. Andrea Dunbar’s original play dates from 1982, and has been revised and edited by John Hollingworth for a 21st century audience. I was really surprised to discover a robust and daring play that nevertheless treads a delicate balance to reveal the truth about a way of life on a Bradford council estate.
In a nutshell, Rita and Sue are two fifteen-year old girls who babysit for Bob and Michelle, who, despite going out a lot, enjoy a fairly unhappy marriage. Michelle has retreated, sexually, from the relationship and Bob, who’s (apparently) 27 is constantly on the lookout for alternative sources of nookie. Before the play starts, he’s already been unfaithful – many times over – with another woman. But as Bob is driving Rita and Sue back home after their babysitting stint, he suggests they go visit the moors, which the girls are only too willing to do (they know what he’s up to); and once they’re there, he proposes sex – again with the same response from the girls; and thereby starts an affair with both of them at the same time that lasts a number of months. Will Michelle guess what’s going on? Will the girls’ parents? You’ll have to catch the play to find out.
With the revelations about such monsters as Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, we, as a society, have had to re-evaluate our younger days and reconsider what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The uncomfortable truth is that this play asks us to laugh at, maybe even sympathise with, a serial paedophile. There’s a moment when the girls recognise that they have to keep quiet about their threesome activity, because if the police find out, Bob could go to jail and they could go into care. So they know full well the illegality of what they’re doing; but of course, sometimes added danger and criminality provide an extra frisson. Without giving away the entire plot, it’s fascinating from today’s viewpoint that it appears that no one involved in the story gets a final come-uppance; despite all the immorality and recklessness, in the main there’s actually no harm done at the end of the day.
So does that make it an immoral play? It was written by a very young woman with first-hand knowledge of living in the Bradford estates, where it takes place; Andrea Dunbar fell pregnant at the age of fifteen, and had two children (from different fathers) whilst still a teenager. She knew that life very well, and wrote these semi-autobiographical accounts to express the reality of life on Brafferton Arbor in the Buttershaw estate. If it is an immoral play, then it’s because it simply reflects an immoral lifestyle. But if that lifestyle is a true depiction of what went on, then is it immoral to tell the truth? I think everyone who sees this play will have their own answer to that.
It’s a chirpy little production, with its brightness nowhere more apparent than with the opening scene, where all six characters appear, in their own little worlds, getting ready to go out of an evening, to the sounds of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. They preen in front of the mirror, or sing into their hairbrush; Sue’s mum huffs and puffs in her housecoat, her dad idly dad-dances down the pub. The set behind them shows two blocks of flats with the lights in windows of various rooms and apartments coming on and going off; and in between, what you could almost describe as a 1970s mural of the country moors where the louse Bob will take the girls for their regular sessions of hows-your-father. The regular reminder of some great 80s tunes really does help set the scene, with their false optimism and working-class bravado. When Rita, Sue and Bob too reach the moors, and all agree to have it off, I couldn’t help but admire the stagecraft of the scene. James Atherton gives a very realistic illusion of Bob pounding his member between each of the girls’ legs. It’s a clever combination of slightly shocking, very funny and weirdly hypnotic as they wrapped their white-socked feet around his naked bum.
All six actors give great performances full of character, humour and attack. Taj Atwal’s Rita is a lovely study of someone who’s almost demure and coquettish and a little bit squeamish but rather innocently goes about getting as much sex as possible as though it were an extra bag of sweets or a naughty glass of cider. Gemma Dobson’s Sue is a little more adventurous and manipulative, just sitting and waiting for Bob to come and do the honours, like a diner expects the waiter to bring his food in a timely manner. The two have a great connection between each other, with wonderful comic timing and a really fluid delivery of their lines; you truly believe they are best pals in each other’s pockets all day. The aforementioned Mr Atherton’s Bob is a suitably cocky so-and-so, and if he does feel any guilt to his regular playing away with underage girls, he hides it well.
Sally Bankes gives a strong performance as Sue’s mum, giving her wastrel husband what-for at every opportunity, dishing out tough love to her daughter and blaming everything on Rita. David Walker also gives a great performance as Dad, trying to rule with a rod of iron and lots of bluster but essentially weak and useless. And I really liked Samantha Robinson as Michelle, unable to stop loving her wretch of a husband despite his infidelities, putting on the bravest of faces when everyone else around her holds her in contempt.
At 80 minutes with no interval, it isn’t quite a full evening’s entertainment and feels more like one element of a day at the fringe; that said, I really admired the tautness of the story-telling, with no scene or speech wasted, keeping the pace and content up throughout the whole show. Its run at Northampton is now over, but the tour continues to Doncaster, York, Derby, the Royal Court, Huddersfield and Mold between now and February. A very strong production of a fascinating, disturbing and funny play. Definitely recommended!
P. S. The man in front of us really got quite carried away in those early sex scenes. “GO ON MY SON” he shouted; “HE’S GOOD AT IT” he confided (not very quietly) to his lady friend; “I WISH I HAD HIS JOB” was his final analysis of the merits or otherwise of being Bob. There are times when it’s better to think these things privately rather than to share it with the group.
Production photos by Richard Davenport