To us Bradfordians, Rita, Sue & Bob Too is mythic. The tourist board got in a tizz about its seediness, but don’t kid yourself the locals did. We know all the scenes, we know all the lines. It’s our Trainspotting.
I grew up on Beacon Road, just round the corner from Buttershaw estate, where writer Andrea Dunbar lived and where the play is set. I went to primary school and youth club with Ritas and Sues. There were Bobs hanging round the nightclubs in town. I’ve been to weddings (I won’t say whose) where they’ve played We’re Having A Gang Bang in homage to one of its most famous scenes. It’s not my life – I’m not kidding on that I lived some kind of childhood of deprivation – but it’s my turf, a world I recognise.
The Royal Court is not my world. I’ve only been there once, and that was for a gig. But such is the ecology of British theatre, we’re obliged to acknowledge its influence, wherever we are in the country. We’re obliged to treat their pronouncements as Things That Matter. And that includes when they are canning their production of Rita, Sue… in a fit of conscience because its subject has become a cause of concern to them.
No doubt there is a crisis in the theatre world over certain male gatekeepers’ abuse of power. The Royal Court are spearheading a campaign against that. Co-producers Out of Joint are addressing the issue in their midst – the behaviour of Max Stafford-Clark. That’s all to the good.
But they don’t get to tell us how to interpret one of our own. Ditching Rita, Sue… reveals the British theatre establishment’s true nature. It’s introspective, scared, conformist and is insistent the wider world share its perspective. Thinking the work of a 1980s Yorkshirewoman, a black comic romp of infidelity and council estate randiness, has a bearing on theatreland’s current troubles is incredibly insular.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a depiction, not a commentary. It isn’t inviting you to judge its characters, just to watch them, even revel in their brazenness. Its agenda, so far as it has one, is simply to get characters like these to be seen, not to boss you into thinking a particular way about them. There’s no “takeaway” message for you to reflect upon in your own life. You’re supposed to delight in the characters’ peccadillos like a gossipy neighbour, not stroke your chin and ask, “what does this all mean for young women?” And all the chatter that surrounds it about the “shocking” morality, the “gritty realism”, the truth of the “sink estate”? That’s all externally imposed commentator-speak from people not of that world. From within, it’s just a story. Straightforward and carefree. It’s bedroom farce, it’s soap opera, not a fucking morality play.
But you wouldn’t know that to read the self-flagellating and moral grandstanding statement from The Royal Court and Out of Joint. The companies find it “highly conflictual”. They see red flags in “its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women”. They’ve seen the play, and they’ve decided they know what it is trying to say.
We don’t actually know what writer Andrea Dunbar would have made of recent exposés in the theatre world. Tragically, because she was a teenage mum from a Bradford estate, not a middle-class literature graduate, she died young in a local pub, rather than living out a comfortable middle-age speaking her brains about these matters on Newsnight and the pages of the Guardian. But we can be fairly sure she wasn’t writing Rita, Sue and Bob Too as fodder for the London theatre set to examine their own consciences by, thirty years hence. To read the theatre’s statement, you’d think she’d written Three Girls.
Maybe – and I know this is a radical notion in modern theatre – maybe Rita, Sue… was written as entertainment, not lecture. Maybe it was written simply so people like Dunbar could see a life they recognised on the stage, not to educate the chattering classes of the 21st century about problematic sexual dynamics on the mean streets of Bradford. Someone wrote an honest, unselfconscious portrait of life as they know it, and their betters from the capital went and projected their own worldview into it.
Even those who have criticised the companies’ stance have fallen into that trap. It needs to be seen, people suggest, because Dunbar is a woman and “women’s voices are exactly what we need to hear on this issue right now”. She is a woman. We do need to hear her. But not for the reasons you think.
Rita, Sue… is not about “this issue right now”. Or at least it doesn’t deal with it in the way some would like it to. The play doesn’t end with Bob getting his comeuppance and a place on the sex offenders’ register. He isn’t forced from his job to atone for his actions. Nor do Rita and Sue have an epiphany about what this bad man has done to them. Scandalously, they actually enjoy sex with Bob.
Watch it and you’ll understand why many working class women’s reaction to the hand-on-knee type of accusations has been “why didn’t she just slap him” or “tell him to piss off”. Not because they’ve internalised misogyny or they’re victim blaming or any of the constructs that get wheeled out when women do not conform to textbook feminism, but because that is the practical and quick way of dealing with it in their world. A knee to the crotch is to Buttershaw what a “calling out” twitter thread is to Balham.
In one scene, Sue’s drunk, racist father threatens to batter Sue and her mum. The women face him down with a world-weary seen-it-all-before resignation. Sue storms off, her Mum says she’s sleeping elsewhere and threatens to batter him back. It’s not pretty. No-one can condone his behaviour, just like no-one is excusing Bob cheating on his wife with a pair of babysitters. But behold the fearlessness of northern working class women.
That is the reason the Royal Court should be showing it right now. Because that perspective must be alien to much of their audience. It might help them understand that when someone responds to the latest sex scandal with “it’s all getting silly now” or “what’s all the fuss about?” they’re not misogynists who want women back in the box, they’re people whose experience of male-female relations comes from an entirely different place. In some cases, they’re women who’ve run the gauntlet of lechy old men and come out winning. A young actress may need an old director to be dealt with. That dynamic does not apply everywhere.
Rita and Sue do not want you protecting them from Bob. They can look after themselves thank you very much. And actually, yes, Bob is old and married and sleazy, but fuck it, they’re young and horny and they just want a “jump”. Likewise, the general public should not need protecting from the “themes” The Royal Court and Out of Joint have discerned for us. The actual “theme” they should have detected was that of a working class northerner telling a story in all its uncurated glory, instead of using her work as a surrogate for whatever internal misconduct they are working through.
But no, they’ve put their own self-ordained status as theatre’s conscience before letting a working class Northern woman tell her story in her way. At least now we know where their priorities lie. And their statement does not even reference the same show’s forthcoming dates at the Citizens’ in Glasgow. It’s what London thinks that matters.
The irony hardly needs pointing out. Andrea Dunbar has been silenced now by an establishment that thinks of itself as challenging and provocative, when all the Mary Whitehouses of this world couldn’t stop Rita and Sue dropping their knickers in the 80s. The Royal Court were the first to produce Dunbar in 1980, now they find her problematic in 2017. That’s not progress.
In a way, I’m glad they’re not producing it. It spares us from earnest metropolitan reviewers telling us it’s a warning from history that Weinsteins walk among us, when in fact all it tells us is that illicit teenage sex with a married man sometimes alleviates small town boredom. More power to Rita, Sue and the council estates of Bradford. It seems they’re still too much for people to take, thirty five years on.