No Grey Area. That’s what our message is in contemporary society. That there is no grey area around consent, harassment and abuse. Hell, we’ve even hash-tagged it. Then this revival of Andrea Dunbar’s seminal play comes along, holding up a mirror to her own experiences, telling us that, actually, there is a grey area. That underage teenage girls can be willing companions to older men wanting to have sex with them. And therein lies the power of this play – compelling us to consider what many of us would prefer to avoid – but also, therein lies this play’s big problem to modern eyes.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too may be set in the 1980s, but its set-up remains as relevant today as it did thirty-five years ago. Living on a run-down council in Bradford, best friends Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) get a lift home one evening from married Bob (James Atherton) after babysitting his kid. All three of them lead pretty desperate lives in Thatcher’s Britain – Bob’s work as a handyman is hardly stable, and the two girls have little in the way of promising prospects – so when Bob offers the girls a detour, with the promise of a bit of a sexual adventure, they leap at the chance of a bit of fun. And so starts a fling that will irrevocably shape the futures of all three.
Now, there is no doubt that this is truthful – both in the literal sense of Andrea’s own experiences, but also in its universality to young girls across Britain. Young girls are curious about sex and are interested in it. This is truthful. But what must be considered is perspective and context if any play on abuse is going to be successful. And this is where the production struggles.
Dramatised at speed with plenty of jokes, there is no doubt that this production is being played for laughs. This is a full-on, rollicking comedy. And the audience seemed to love it. The auditorium was filled with guffaws as we watched Bob’s pale white bottom pumping up and down between the respective girls’ legs in the opening scene, the sex awkwardly squeezed in between Bob’s car doors and his dashboard. And they continued to laugh as Sue’s parents argued over her behaviour (despite the implicit presence of domestic violence), as Bob’s penis flops leaving him unable to perform, and as the women of the Estate round on the two girls when their behaviour is exposed.
And, for me, it’s this ongoing decision to keep Rita, Sue and Bob Too performed as a comedy more than a drama that is at the heart of its problem.
This should be a play of tiny tragedies, of how these girls are exploited and abused, then how the rays of sun slowly disappear from their lives, and the crushing reality of life as an adult takes over. But little of that weight is here. In order to wring out the comedy, the girls keep their giggles throughout, their glass-half-full view of the world never really shattered.
These are fifteen-year-old girls playing at being adults in a world they cannot possibly understand. And little seems to shift their upbeat naivety, whether it be Bob losing his job or splitting from his wife (an event to which the girls might consider themselves partly responsible), or the big issues that later appear. There are moments of terrible awakenings for the young girls here, but they are played off rather lightly.
It is now known that Andrea Dunbar was uncomfortable with the extent to which her writing was played for laughs, often wishing for a more serious examination. She may have only been nineteen when she wrote this play but her instinct was bang on the money. This play is crying out for a more sober take.
And it’s with this in mind that you start questioning the extent of the influence of Max Stafford-Clark, who mentored Andrea at the time – and who was initially attached to this production before his own history of harassment was exposed. Was it his influence that pushed this play so far into high comedy, against Andrea’s wishes? After all, perhaps the set-up was, to him, hilarious.
I don’t want to be overly down on this revival from Out of Joint. Given what was asked of them by director Kate Wasserberg, the cast are terrific. As Bob, James Atherton is excellent as the man who is a hero to these girls but an utter failure to anyone looking at him with clear eyes. Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson are full of energy and their bubbliness makes for an interesting contrast with the world they inhabit.
And, it must be said, Samantha Robinson is blindingly good as Bob’s wife Michelle. She seems within touching distance of being a woman strong enough to leave her shit husband but each time, she just can’t do it. It’s a piercingly good portrayal.
Had Vicky F seen this production before she made her decision to cancel its transfer to the Royal Court? Did it play a part in her decision? If so, I can’t help feeling her initial decision was correct. There is, absolutely, a place for Rita, Sue and Bob Too in theatre today. Of course there is. And there is a definite need for Andrea’s voice also (and her contemporary equivalents). But tone and context are everything – and this production is tone deaf and, seemingly, oblivious to the wider context. What I would have given for a more sober, complicated take on this classic rather than one playing so uncomfortably for laughs and giggles.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to January 27, 2018
All production images by The Other Richard.