- OnStage United Kingdom Critic
Andrea Dunbar’s most famous play Rita, Sue and Bob Too has long been hailed for its gritty portrayal of life’s rough edges, primarily on some of the bleak council estates nestled between the picturesque Yorkshire moors. Set during the 1980s, Dunbar’s play received great acclaim during its premiere at the Royal Court, before going on to be immortalised in a film adaptation, for which it is arguably best known. Now, in a new revival presented by Out of Joint, Octagon Theatre Bolton and the Royal Court, Dunbar’s gritty work is about to reach both old and new generations of theatregoers – I managed to catch it on its stop at York Theatre Royal.
For those not already familiar with it, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is set on one such estate that Dunbar’s work frequently characterised; we meet Rita and Sue (Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson respectively), two teenage schoolgirls who have a fling with older man Bob (James Atherton). As the girls enjoy plenty of casual sex with Bob, it soon dawns on them that consequences are on the horizon, and the lives they’ve been brought up to lead amidst their fractured, demoralised families will soon lead to the vicious cycle being repeated.
In this newly edited version of the play by John Hollingworth, director Kate Wasserberg beautifully evokes the grit and the no-nonsense authorial voice of a playwright ahead of her time. From the play’s opening moments, where we see exactly what Rita, Sue and Bob get up to in his car on the moors, Wasserberg begins to craft a compelling piece of physical drama that weaves together the attitudes and moods of a pivotal decade in British culture.
Her directorial vision squeezes every last drop of character-driven realism our of Dunbar’s text; as a result, Atherton, Atwal and Dobson make a compelling trio, bringing to life vivid and complex characters whose motives interweave with the looming thematic and historical factors of the text: widespread unemployment, domestic strife and social mobility versus societal suffocation. The trio’s performances, along with those of Sally Bankes as Sue’s mother, Samantha Robinson as Bob’s wife and David Walker as Sue’s foul-mouthed father, are sensitively crafted and expertly executed right down to the very last detail.
Buffeting such wonderfully nuanced performances is a potent scenography, which truly serves to emphasise the turbulent tonal shifts in a bid to reflect the vibrant yet challenging 80s. Tim Shortall’s set and costumes perfectly reflect the grimy-yet-glamorous attitudes towards architectural progress and subcultural style: think concrete and brick tower blocks of flats with yellow windows flickering like stars, and moonlit dances in a pair of Adidas trainers. There’s also a sonic landscape of classic 80s hits; Tainted Love blasts out on the synths, followed by Phil Collins – all while distant village lights flicker amongst the desolate green of the isolated Yorkshire landscape.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a play that, in all of its linguistic coarseness and often graphic stage images, simultaneously has a real sense of punch and charm that brings audiences both old and new face to face with the writings and attitudes of one of Britain’s most forward-thinking playwrights. This production is fresh, newly reinvigorated by a top director and brilliant cast, and will undoubtedly stir and challenge the audiences that have the privilege of seeing it.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is at York Theatre Royal until 18th November. For more information and tickets, please visit: https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/event/rita_sue_and_bob_too.php#.WgxHhWi0PIU