Rita, Sue and Bob Too review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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This controversial revival of Andrea Dunbar's iconic play completes its fraught journey to the Royal Court

‘Ew, it looks like a frozen sausage!’

Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play centres around an unattractive penis, attached to a floppy-haired man, who’s attached to his two underage babysitters - even though they mix puppyish devotion with offputting frankness about his physical attributes. This production’s arrival at the Royal Court has been controversial, not least because this touring revival began under director Max Stafford-Clark, who left his company Out of Joint following allegations of sexual harassment. Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone cancelled the run, then reinstated it just days later after a huge media outcry over censorship.  

In the hands of director Kate Wasserberg, this production feels like a slender peg to hang these debates on. It’s peppy and closely faithful to its original setting, soundtracked with ’80s-by-numbers pop songs. As Rita and Sue, Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson are young and heartless, by turns giggling and defiant. They use Bob like a playground or a fantasy boyfriend or a surrogate father, barely noticing that he’s a creepy, lost shell of a man, more aware than they are of how much there is to lose. And they despise his wife Michelle (the very funny Samantha Robinson), who they see as tragically washed out at 25. These two kids see themselves as full grown women, capable of out-manipulating Bob – and the community judges them like women, too.

It’s an astonishing piece by a 19-year-old, an incredibly rare example of a working class, northern woman’s voice. And it’s also, inevitably, not a mature piece of work. It presents this scenario without judgement, without the experience to fully probe its warped power dynamics. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss it, or file it away as juvenalia. But it also means that attempts to place it in the context of discussions around grooming, around the Rotherham cases, around sexual harrassment and the post-Weinstein reckoning will inevitably fall short.

This is especially true in the case of this production. It's opening scene, in which Bob uncomfortably has it off with both girls in the back of a car at agonising length, feels like the biggest misstep, landing waves of audience laughter at his bobbing white bum and soggy condoms. It stresses that he’s a pretty tragic figure, but doesn’t give much space for their perspective, their discomfort. I’m slightly haunted by the memory that Dunbar was disappointed in the film of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’, and the way it wrung laughs out of moments she meant to be taken seriously.

Hopefully, future revivals will have more space to think a bit harder to think about the quality of that laughter, and where it belongs. In the year since this production opened, the world around it has shifted. It feels like a time-capsule, its jokes muddied with new realities. 

By: Alice Saville

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