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Natasha Tripney: Rita, Sue and Bob Too has changed since I saw it in Bolton, but so has the world

The cast of Rita, Sue and Bob Too at Octagon Theatre, Bolton. Photo: Richard Davenport The cast of Rita, Sue and Bob Too at Octagon Theatre, Bolton. Photo: Richard Davenport
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Last September, when I went to Bolton’s Octagon Theatre to catch the opening performance of Out of Joint’s Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, feels like a very different time.

The play, written by playwright Andrea Dunbar when she was 19, tells a story in which two 15-year-old girls have sex with a married man in his 20s. September predated the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the resultant exposure of the abuse, harassment and general bad behaviour that has seemingly been endemic in the entertainment industry for many years. Most crucially, it was before Max Stafford-Clark, director of the original production of the play, was obliged to step down from Out of Joint, the company he’d run for 23 years. In September, he was still billed as co-director of this 25th-anniversary revival along with Kate Wasserberg.

The play I saw then was entertaining and troubling in equal measure. This was particularly the case with the sex scenes, which were made to feel simultaneously amusing and appalling – Bob’s juddering buttocks were juxtaposed with Rita and Sue’s schoolgirl ankle socks. Though presumably intended to echo the original production, these scenes could have been handled with more delicacy and care.

Watching the play again this weekend at the Royal Court, I was struck by a number of small but significant changes.

Ten minutes have been shaved off the running time and an upbeat introductory musical sequence has been wisely jettisoned; it also feels like some of the brash 1980s peppiness has been toned down too. Now, the production dives straight into the sex-in-Bob’s-car scene and the complicity and awkwardness of this feels intensified.

But the most clear change is not on stage, but in the context that surrounds this production. A note in the programme now makes it clear that Stafford-Clark left three days into the production’s five-week rehearsal period, which poses the question: why Wasserberg wasn’t always credited as the sole director?

Royal Court backtracks on plans to cancel production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

It’s almost impossible to disentangle the production from its path to the Royal Court stage. After the theatre’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone took the decision to cancel the London run, because of what she termed the “highly conflictual” nature of the work. An outcry followed, in which she was accused of silencing Dunbar’s voice and of betraying the Royal Court’s principles. She quickly reversed the decision, but I suspect she would have faced some form of backlash whichever path she chose.

There are so many layers of complication at work here.

On the one hand, this is not just any production of Dunbar’s play. It is one that was originally overseen by a man who, it has since emerged, has a history of using his professional position to harass women and has been forced to step down from his job because of it.

But, on the other, Dunbar’s play remains a rare example of a working-class woman’s voice. Equally rare is its willingness to explore the sexuality of its young female protagonists in a nuanced and judgement-free way. These girls have a tiny window of freedom available to them, before what they perceive as a lifetime of drudgery and motherhood, and they grab it – they share Bob between them like a sherbet dip. What he’s doing to them is abusive, but Dunbar, writing from experience, shows how little else they have going for them. Their job prospects are poor and the impact of Thatcherism on the estate in which they live is already being felt. Playing Rita and Sue, Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson (the latter making an impressive professional debut), capture this mixture of desire, thrill and resignation.

In her astute review in Time Out, Alice Saville points out that the play is both an astonishing piece of work for a 19-year-old and inevitably not a mature piece of writing.

Of course, Dunbar never got to write her mature works because she would be dead by 29 from a brain haemorrhage.

While it’s dismayingly hard to imagine a voice like Dunbar’s being given such a platform today, it’s also worth remembering that she was threatened by residents of the Buttershaw estate, where she still lived, over what they took to be a negative portrayal of their home in the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and that, as a result of the royalties she received, she was charged with benefit fraud.

Dunbar went on to write a third play, Shirley, in 1985. But while Stafford-Clark would move on to champion other playwrights, she would stay where she was. And it’s this that I can’t stop thinking about: I wonder what, if any, support she was given throughout this time and how many Bobs she met along the way. I also wonder, would we do any better by someone like her now?

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