Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Out of Joint
Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds
Although Andrea Dunbar’s controversial play is almost 40 years old, it still resonates today with its themes of sexual grooming, exploitation of young women and the struggles of those who find themselves very much in the ‘have not’ category of modern-day Britain.
With the #metoo movement shining a much-needed light on the hidden problems in the art industry and events like Bradford’s Asian gang convicted of grooming school girls, this is probably a very timely play to revive. Although not an easy one to watch.
Written when at the age of 19 and a single mother of three, Dunbar’s play, set in the early 1980s, looks at life on the Bradford estate she was brought up on and it's defiantly ‘grim up north’. Rita and Sue are 15-year-old friends from the poor end of town who babysit regularly for Bob and his wife Michelle. Bob is a self-employed building contractor, Michelle a factory supervisor and an Avon lady—they have two kids, a car and a loveless marriage.
The opening scene sees Bob taking the girls home after a night out. He drives them around for a bit and, after educating them on some basics of how to use a ‘rubber Johnny’, has his wicked way with them in the back of his car. Strong stuff, but in some respects very unerotic as the girls are very matter-of-fact about the whole thing and see it as a bit of fun rather than a sleazy encounter.
In some ways it also gives them status—an older man with a car and money—and there’s nothing frightening about it as they have each other. So this opens the floodgates to weekly encounters, which they start to look forward to and find a bit of a giggle. The girls are obviously not inexperienced, older than their years and, although it’s in theory very wrong, they are not hugely emotionally damaged by the encounters. It also helps that the girls are played by actors who don’t look prepubescent or anorexic and Bob is good looking and not that much older.
While the wife becomes more and more suspicious, the girls dream of becoming Bob’s number one and getting off the estate, while working at the local factory on a YTS scheme and dealing with the everyday violence of drunken and dysfunctional parents.
The staging is simple yet effective: four movable chairs and a mock-up of a grim block of flats either side of the stage and a glorious panorama of the town, with the houses lit at night, as a backdrop.
Bob is played by John Askew as just the right side of sleazy, Rita (Alice Liburd) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) are very believable as the friends and all three cope with the sex scenes very well due to clever direction by Kate Wasserberg.
Samantha Robinson as Michelle gives the bruised heart to the play and the cast is completed by Mum (Susan Mitchell) in full-on Northern mother mode and David Walker as the permanently drunken Dad.
The dialogue sparkles and grinds all at the same time, the arguments are visceral, the language biting and honest.
Although the inevitable happens and there’s a big falling out, the play gives no easy answers on any of the questions it raises. Eventually, Bob leaves his wife and moves a now pregnant Rita in with him, Sue finds a new boyfriend off the estate. Life goes on.
This isn’t an easy watch and, if you are easily offended, not for you. But as a comment on life both under Margaret Thatcher and Conservatives now and a snapshot of life in Bradford in the '80s holding a mirror to the teenage problems of today, it is very well worth a look.