Rita, Sue and Bob Too and A State Affair

Andrea Dunbar / Robin Soanes

Soho Theatre

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

Rita, Sue and Bob Too
By Andrea Dunbar

This play from 1982, which was also made into a film, is now revived by Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint Company at the Soho Theatre. Stafford-Clark originally helped Andrea Dunbar, a 21 year old from the slums of Bradford, to put together this autobiographical play.

It is very hard-hitting, as is so much of Out of Joint’s work. The scene is set early on with graffiti on the doors and a general air of decay. This is a play about a married father, Bob, who seduces his two 15-year-old babysitters in his car on the Yorkshire Moors.

The girls are the bold, cynical Sue, played by Emma Rydal, and the more timid, romantic Rita (Emily Aston). Throughout, we see tight, ironical direction with the sneering unpleasant loser, Bob, not only taking advantage of Rita and Sue but also walking all over his wife, Michelle. She is not completely convincingly played by Sally Rogers, whose mix of superiority and downtrodden slavery does not quite work.

Bob ends up as a classic victim of Thatcher’s Britain, unemployed, no longer master over his wife and haunted by Thatcher. He tries to laugh everything off but ultimately he is just another lazy unemployed layabout who blames the world for his own problems.

The two girls are a wonderful mixture of the gauche naivety of youth and a maturity beyond their years that clearly arises from life with drunken, violent, disappearing fathers and downtrodden beaten mothers.

The play is given a very feminist reading here, nowhere more so that in an hilarious fight scene. In this, the whole cast gets involved in a major slanging match with Sue’s mother, unable to believe that her little daughter could have done wrong, blaming Rita. At the same time, Michele attacks Bob and Sue’s father attacks her (Sue). Rita’s younger brother just pitches in against everybody.

Ultimately, Dunbar’s comment on the whole sad tale is that ‘all men are no good, they want shooting’. The finale is also the chance for the women to stage a ‘very minor’ revolt against their horrific men-folk.

A State Affair
By Robin Soanes

This play at the Soho Theatre is a contemporary review of Bradford, eighteen years after Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It is stylistically very different but equally hard hitting and sad.

The style is very contemporary with the cast engaging with their audience. We see actors chatting with and talking directly to the audience, with very sharp quick-fire delivery as people talk across each other to build up a vivid impression of millennial Bradford.

The audience soon realises that it is listening to seven single stories of the downtrodden. There are tales of battering of both wives and children and generally of the ways in which children suffer. We hear how tiny children learn how to sniff glue using the rejects left by their elders. We learn of women who are allowed by their employers to take a little time off work to get married but are told that if they go on honeymoon they need not come back to their jobs.

Men are regularly alcoholic, possessive and violent and it is all too likely that fathers will abuse their children.

In this context, everyone needs some kind of escapism whether it is alcohol, glue or something stronger - “heaven on a piece of foil”.

This very powerful story of addicts and alcoholics, prostitutes and pimps shows that Bradford, if anything, has got even worse in the eighteen years since Andrea Dunbar wrote her original play.

The redemption comes in the shape of Sue, brilliantly acted by Jane Wood. She is the principal of Agape House. This is a religious hostel for the beaten and the addicted. It contains the only twelve beds for addicts in the whole of Bradford and receives no funding. It attracts the lowest of the low and helps to try and dig them out and save them from themselves.

You realise what they are up against when you see the fantastic portrayal of an addict who will rob anyone to feed his habit. This is a tremendous effort by Matthew Wait, who played Bob in the first play.

The play ends incredibly poignantly with a speech by Lorraine, Andrea Dunbar’s daughter. She is completely desperate, addicted to heroin and can never forgive her mother for saying that she wishes she had had an abortion.

She perhaps sums up the whole of the evening with the comment that “if I wrote a play… it would show some people getting their lives together with a lot of courage and determination. But it would also show others going down a big steep hill, into a big black hole”.

These two plays were followed by a discussion between some members of the audience and three of the actors.

We learned that A State Affair was loosely based on a book, Dark Heart by Nick Davies.

The whole of the cast, together with Robin Soanes and the directors, went into Leeds to conduct interviews. Robin Soanes put together piles of interviews into the final version of the play and effectively acted as an editor.

While some of the portrayals had to be enhanced in order to make reasonable theatre, much of what was said and repeated was absolutely true. In particular, Sue King and Agape were absolutely real and Jane Wood, who played the part, felt Sue looking over her shoulder as she played her.

It has been very interesting for the cast to tour this work as they have had different reactions in different places. They were particularly excited about the prospect of playing in Bradford where the play is set. They were firmly of the view that the audience would be heartened rather than depressed about the nature of the play.

Ian Redford who had played in both the plays chaired - or perhaps moderated - this session very successfully and he was particularly informative about the way in which Out of Joint work using group and workshop techniques to devise and to develop their plays.

This play had already been performed over forty times in various venues and the cast were generally in agreement that it had remained very fresh. They thought that this was in part because the excitement and terror of talking directly to an audience as they have to in A State Affair. This very much kept them on their toes every night. It also meant that they were acutely conscious of the different reactions that they received.

Altogether a chilling but worthwhile evening.