It speaks volumes about the tone of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a story about a married older man hooking up with two teenage schoolgirls for regular car-based sex sessions, that the Royal Court, hardly renowned for playing it safe, briefly pulled the play from its schedule.
In the wake of Weinstein, #MeToo, and the Royal Court’s own now-departed artistic director Max Stafford-Clark (who stripped naked in rehearsals of this very play back in 1982 and questioned cast members about when they lost their virginity), Andrea Dunbar’s play was considered “conflictual”.
You can see why: the source material veers closer to Shameless than Lolita (the tag-line for the 1987 movie adaptation was “Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down”), and while Bob was never exactly a sympathetic character, the situation was mostly played for laughs, remaining agnostic as to whether the experience was damaging for the girls.
Perhaps, then, this production offers a small sign that attitudes have changed, because it rarely feels like a comedy today. Bob initiates the three-way affair when he drops the girls off from babysitting. The way he steers the conversation towards sex, then dresses it up as a biology lesson, is clearly an exercise in grooming. The sex itself is awkward and uncomfortable – literally and metaphorically – a depiction of a sexual predator taking advantage of a pair of 15-year-olds. And for a play with a mercifully brief run-time, there’s a whole lot of sex – about a fifth of the evening’s entertainment is James Atherton’s hairy buttocks thrusting joylessly back and forth.
For Dunbar, the affair was an attempt by Bob to regain some agency in a world that’s rendered him culturally and economically impotent. Thatcher-era austerity has left their working-class community broken and broke, with little else to do than have a quick “jump” in the car. And while the idea of austerity Britain is hardly a foreign concept in 2018, there is little sympathy for Bob , not only for his treatment of Rita and Sue, but also his aggressive disdain for his long-suffering wife.
Beyond the production’s existential furore, it’s a pretty straight reading of the material, a pure period piece, all hair-curlers and Corrie-on-the-TV and sly ciggies. While this all sounds – and largely is – unremittingly bleak, two chippy performances from Taj Atwal as Rita and Gemma Dobson as Sue provide some welcome balance. They’re smart kids, standing on the threshold of adulthood, just beginning to conceptualise the grim future that awaits them.
Had it been staged a year ago, this would probably have passed largely without comment, a competent restaging of a beloved but problematic play. As it is, it’s destined to be remembered as Rita, Sue and #MeToo.
First published in City A.M.