Theatre Censorship – Rita Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court, or not

Lord Cobbold

Lord Cobbold, Lord Chamberlain 1963 – 1971

Theatre Censorship is one of my favourite topics. Get me drunk and I’ll either tell you about fourteen ways of making a new word in the English language without borrowing from foreign languages (no, honestly), or I’ll blather on about why Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George wasn’t banned but Edward Bond’s Saved was. Official censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office ceased in 1968 – fifty years ago next year, more of which later – but there’s no more effective form of censorship than commercial censorship. You might have written The Best Play Ever but if no producer or theatre will touch it, it will never see the light of day.

Rita Sue and Bob TooSomething of a mini-censorship furore has raised its ugly head recently over the production of Rita Sue and Bob Too which was due to play at the Royal Court in January. A few days ago it was announced that they were dropping the production, as it was co-directed by the once lauded, now disgraced Max Stafford-Clark. Mr Stafford-Clark has been accused of many instances of improper behaviour with cast members over the years; and as Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1979 to 1993, it’s not hard to forge a link between him and his behaviour and the theatre itself.

Vicky Featherstone

Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director, Royal Court Theatre

No wonder emotions ran a little high; particularly as Rita Sue and Bob Too is a challenging play that depicts – there’s no two ways of saying this – a man regularly having sex with two fifteen-year-old girls. In 1982 when the play first appeared, that was illegal but many a blind eye was turned. Today, in our post-Operation Yewtree world, this is completely unacceptable; and in the Royal Court’s post-Stafford-Clark climate, where Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone has also been part of a major campaign against sexual harassment in the industry in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein shenanigans, she obviously felt that the play and the theatre did not sit well side by side. But only a few days later, this decision was reversed.

Royal CourtIMHO, society still hasn’t quite worked out what to do about paedophiles, so I think a good production of this play is a valuable tool in the discussion databank. There are many reasons why I applaud Vicky Featherstone’s decision to backtrack on dropping the play and reinstating it in the schedule. Censorship is never the answer. Just because you burn the books it doesn’t make the content go away. This is, indeed, a very good production, which I saw in Northampton in November. Why is it perfectly acceptable for the play to tour many provincial theatres around the UK, but for it suddenly to be too distasteful for the capital? Indeed, the Royal Court’s history of presenting avant garde theatre over the decades – its raison d’etre in many aspects – by rights ought to mean that there is nowhere more appropriate for the play to be staged. I bumped into the Chief Executive of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton shortly after we’d seen Rita Sue and Bob Too at his theatre and remarked on what a challenging play it is, in that we’re being asked to sympathise with a paedophile. His simple response was one of yes, it really makes you think and doesn’t theatre throw up some surprises sometimes. Which I think is absolutely the most rational reaction.

Andrea Dunbar

Andrea Dunbar

Added to which, the play’s writer, Andrea Dunbar, is no longer alive to defend her own work or to write more plays. Censorship of Rita Sue and Bob Too is effectively stifling what remains of her voice; a voice that came from the heart and described day-to-day life in her home town of Bradford in those depressing but unforgettable early Thatcher days. It would be a strange mixture of cowardly and cruel to extinguish her voice even further.

If Andrea Dunbar had written this play in the mid-1960s I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would have banned it outright, because of its display of promiscuous and underage sex. I could even imagine a case of obscenity being brought against it. The Theatres Act defines an obscene play as one likely to deprave and corrupt those likely to see it. Well, when I saw Rita Sue and Bob Too, the man in front of me was definitely getting carried away with the sexual frissons emanating from the stage, with shouts like “Go on, my son” and “I wish I had his job”. Had the play depraved and corrupted that man? That would be for a court to decide, but, personally, I think he was already three-quarters of the way there. Those days of stage censorship are long gone, let’s not resurrect them now.

Whilst I have your attention, gentle reader, next year I shall be launching a brand new, additional, site where I hope to take you through the fiftieth anniversary of the withdrawal of stage censorship, looking at many examples of banned or heavily edited plays, the writers’ reactions, the effects on the plays themselves, the opinions of the public and the reviewers, the history of stage censorship and the progress towards its abolition. Please feel free to bookmark now – the About page is already written – and we will get going properly in January!

Review – Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Out of Joint, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Rita Sue and Bob TooSome 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.

RSB3In 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.

RSB4With 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.

RSB5So 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.

RSB8It’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.

RSB7All 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.

RSB6Sally 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.

RSB2At 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!

RSB1P. 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