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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, Andrea 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.

Rita and Sue have been babysitting Bob’s kids. As he’s driving them home he asks if they know what a condom is and how to use one. The sex that follows is presented in drawn-out queasy scenes, with Bob’s juddering buttocks framed by the girls’ feet. They are wearing white schoolgirl ankle socks. These scenes are presented as being rightfully appalling. But they’re also not without moments of humour, as the characters negotiate the uncomfortable backseat of Bob’s car, muck about with rubber johnnies and debate whether or not it’s entirely necessary to take off their trousers.

One of the most notable things about the play is its refusal to condemn. Jason Atherton’s Bob is a basically a penis in jeans. He’s using the girls for his own gratification but he is not portrayed solely as a predator. His behaviour is shocking, perhaps now even more so than it was then, but these things happened where Dunbar grew up. They happened to her. And it’s clear that, for Rita and Sue, sex is a form of release. It’s definitely more entertaining than the YTS. Bob is something the girls can do together. But of course, as the play makes clear, 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.

This revival highlights the richness – and occasional roughness – of the play. Dunbar’s writing concentrates on the bonds between the female characters; 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.

The performances of Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson, making an impressive professional debut as Sue, are full of fizz and verve as well as resignation.

There are moments in the production when the affection for Dunbar’s text becomes a stumbling block. The staging is too unquestioningly reverential at times and the 1980s setting is over-egged. The soundtrack is stuffed full of hits by  Michael Jackson, Blondie and, of course, Gary Numan. After a while it starts to feel like one of the early Now! compilations.

Bob’s anger that Thatcher has created a world in which the rich will only get richer has 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 will, increasingly, demonise them. This is a troubling play in many ways but what’s most troubling about it is how difficult it is to even imagine a voice like Dunbar’s being given such a platform today.

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