Rita, Sue and Bob Too review at Octagon Theatre, Bolton – ‘a timely revival’

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

Sex is central to Rita, Sue and Bob Too – the film version was released with the tag-line ‘Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down’, which is crude but not inaccurate. It’ is, after all, a play in more ways than one about getting fucked.

In her short life, Andrew Dunbar wrote three semi-autobiographical plays drawing on her experiences growing up on a Bradford estate. Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the second of these, written in 1982, depicts a series of sexual encounters between two teenage girls and an older married man.

Once they’re done babysitting his kids, Bob drives them home and instigates things by asking if they know what a Durex is and how to use one. The sex is presented in drawn-out queasy scenes, with Bob’s juddering buttocks framed by feet clad in schoolgirl’s ankle socks. It is simultaneously appalling and not without humour as they negotiate the uncomfortable backseat, muck about with rubber johnnies and debate whether it’s necessary to take off their trousers.

One of the most notable things about the play is its total lack of sentimentality and its refusal to condemn. Jason Atherton’s Bob is a basically a penis in jeans who’s using the girls for his own gratification but he is not portrayed solely as a predator. It’s shocking, perhaps now more so than then, but these things happened where Dunbar grew up. They happened to her. And it’s clear that, for the girls, sex is more entertaining than the YTS. Bob is something they do together. But of course it’s not him who gets labelled a slut by all and sundry when people find out what they’ve been up to, nor him who has to deal with the pregnancy that results.

Max Stafford-Clark directed the original production at the Royal Court and here, in his last production for Out of Joint after 23 years, he revisits the play he championed, co-directing with Kate Wasserberg.

The revival highlights both the richness of the play – Dunbar’s writing concentrates on the bonds between women; even Michelle, Bob’s wife, who’s deemed by the girls to have everything a woman could want because she has a husband and some nice clothes, is shown to be warm and not unsympathetic – as well as its roughness.

The performances of Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson, making an impressive professional debut as Sue, are full of fizz and verve, but also resignation. There are moments though, when the affection for the text becomes a stumbling block, the staging a little too reverential and the 1980s setting over-egged, with a soundtrack featuring Michael Jackson, Blondie and, of course, Gary Numan, that starts to feel like someone’s popped on one of the early Now! compilations.

Bob’s anger that Thatcher has created a world in which the rich will only get richer takes on a horrible resonance, as does the knowledge of what life likely has in store for Rita and Sue as young working class women in a world that increasingly will demonise them. What’s most troubling about this play is how difficult it is to even imagine a voice like Dunbar’s being given such a platform today.

Timely revival of Andrea Dunbar's lively and still-shocking coming of age play