In all the moral kerfuffle around this show – one minute the Royal Court were pulling the plug, then they weren’t – something obvious got overlooked. It isn’t called Rita, Sue and Bob Too just for the rhyme. Bob, the titular philanderer, is the adjunct, the hanger-on, not the focal point. The late Andrea Dunbar’s tale of 80s council estate Bradford is best known from the 1987 film version and easily gets characterised as: randy husband has it away with the underage babysitters and gets away with it. But it’s the girls who are the centre of this story, and the original, better ending of this stage version, which doesn’t feature his nibs at all, makes that clear.
It’s the treatment of two iconic scenes that did make it to the film that illustrate the mixed results of this production though.
Director Kate Wasserberg must have thought long and hard about how to bring car seat sex to the stage. Her solution works. James Atherton’s bare arse shields the sordid act from the audience while we get to see the girls’ alternately thrilled and disgusted faces. It’s comical – never forget the strong comedy element to the play – but Bob grinds away just long enough to make you cringe with discomfort. Get the right mix of seediness and humour and you’re two-thirds of the way there.
But there’s a third element, grittiness, which this production doesn’t do quite as well. In the other film scene seared in the memory, Rita, Sue, Bob, Bob’s wife Michelle, and Sue’s parents have a bust-up in front of the entire council estate. Shot on location, high-rises tower over them and neighbours heckle from balconies. The whole scene’s vaguely gladitorial, with Buttershaw estate as an ampitheatre. Here, the blocking does nothing to build the tension. Cast members wander in front of each other, and pair-up for arguments in forced and unnatural patterns. It’s stilted and unconvincing. Nothing like the whites-of-the-eyes face-off of the film. A spartan set, not much more than a moorland backdrop, doesn’t help with atmosphere, though that can be forgiven on a budget.
The production’s a mixed bag in other ways too. Firstly, its encapsulation of the 80s is fuzzy. Period music – Soft Cell, Human League – delivers the Proustian rush it’s supposed to, but it’s slowed down and hacked up (maybe a comment on how broken the situation is?). It’s a remix effect that puts you back into the 21st century. Likewise the costumes say “80s” but are more a 21st century reimagining than an authentic period wardrobe.
Secondly, the cast, while OK individually (if you forgive some accents crossing the Pennines) are mismatched as couples. On screen, Bob and Michelle are bottom-rung yuppies who’ve moved to the suburbs. Michelle thinks herself a cut above, and Bob’s happy to play at it. Here, Michelle (Samantha Robinson) has the same airs and shoulder-pads, but Bob’s shell suit and mullet say he isn’t climbing any social ladders soon. That clear delineation between the older couple and the younger baby-sitters is lost. Bob’s behaviour seems less motivated by old-man lust and more by social identification.
Similarly, Sue’s mum (Sally Bankes) is a caricature in hair curlers, seemingly informed by later 90s comedy depictions of the north (The Full Monty, East Is East), while her vest-wearing husband (David Walker) channels 60s kitchen sink ones (Saturday Night Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life). For that reason, Walker’s performance is the stronger. A man whose wit and movement is slowed by drink, he gives the play a grit it sorely needs.
The two girls, Taj Atwal (Rita) and Gemma Dobson (Sue), are less mismatched and turn in performances that tick over nicely, especially Dobson for whom this is a professional debut. In the end, it is their story. Theirs, and that of Dunbar, for whom this was practically autobiography.
You see now why they added extra elements to the film. Sue’s inter-racial relationship with a taxi driver fills out this otherwise brief play with an interesting extra thread. But you can also see why Dunbar didn’t like what they’d done. Her ending, as well as a scene in which Bob breaks down in front of the girls, puts a different spin on proceedings. This revival may have it flaws, but this is not a writer, a setting or a story of the kind we see enough of. For getting this out there, even in the face of moralising meddlers, it has to be commended.