Rita, Sue and Bob Too: bleak but enduringly fresh - Royal Court Theatre review

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James Atherton as Bob and Samantha Robinson as wife Michelle in Andrea Dunbar's Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court Theatre, London Credit: Alastair Muir

Last month, the Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone performed the most astonishing U-turn in the theatre’s history when, within just two days, she reversed a controversial decision to cancel the London run of a touring revival of a landmark Eighties play: Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, billed at its film incarnation in 1987 as “Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down”.

Was she right to conduct such a volte-face? The primary explanation for pulling the plug on the production emphasised a “conflict” between the post-Weinstein mood of the moment and the libidinous themes of this semi-autobiographical comedy. Set on a poverty-stricken Bradford estate, Rita, Sue and Bob Too shows a 27-year-old married man having it off with two 15-year-old schoolgirls, befriended through their babysitting stints.

Featherstone refused to countenance “the staging of this work, with its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women” in the same building that had just heard over “150 stories of sexual harassment and abuse” as part of her initiative to clean up working practices in the industry.

Denounced for silencing a rare working-class female voice (Dunbar died young and troubled aged 29), she relented. None of this, though, went to the heart of the matter: integral to the play’s original success and this revival was the director Max Stafford-Clark, who ran the Court between 1979 and 1993 and could be described as a titan of post-war theatre. He was revered, among other things, for championing women playwrights and, crucially, for discovering Dunbar.

Now 76, Stafford-Clark was forced to step aside from the production early in rehearsals and quit the artistic directorship of the company touring the work (Out of Joint) after a complaint about his lewd behaviour was made by a female member of staff last summer. This only came to light during the tour in October as a result of the employee in question sharing her story – with supporting statements from other women too – in The Guardian.

Taj Atwal as Rita and Gemma Dobson as Sue Credit: Alastair Muir

Where once in 1982 Stafford-Clark stripped naked in rehearsals along with Joanne Whalley (Rita) and Lesley Manville (Sue), in 2017, he was said to have asked the complainant and others about losing their virginity during auditions. Instead of coming full-circle in a triumphant homecoming, the play has become a knotty cause célèbre, engulfed by questions about changing social attitudes and male behaviour.

Should the run have gone ahead? On balance, yes. It’s a shame and a sleight of hand, though, that Stafford-Clark’s name has been sidelined for the London run, with co-director Kate Wasserberg (now running Out of Joint) given sole directing credits. If the Royal Court couldn’t organise a contextualising festival of work looking at the issues, it could at least be transparent about the nature of what it’s presenting.

While it’s impossible to say what Dunbar would have wanted, what emerges forcefully watching the piece is not only its enduring freshness, comic vitality and bleak authenticity, but also its absolute commitment to raw honesty.

Dunbar showed us what life in her neck of the woods – blighted by mass unemployment – was like. In the notorious opening scene we’re presented here with the sight of (commendably brave) actor James Atherton lowering his jeans and baring his twitching buttocks as Bob indulges in illegal intercourse with Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson’s giggling, nervous yet excited, even possibly empowered, Rita and Sue in the cramped confines of his banger, filled condoms flying about like a sex-education class gone bonkers. This is warts-and-all Britain.

Gemma Dobson as Sue, James Atherton as Bob and Taj Atwal as Rita Credit: Alastair Muir

Even if some of the writing is schematic – the profusion of expletives aside, this dramatic quickie jolts in a soapish fashion through its set-ups and show-downs – the performances are, across the board, nuanced, deeply felt and satisfyingly complex. And that’s where Dunbar throws down a provocation to those watching today.

Bob may be a chauvinist dinosaur, callously taking advantage and treating his wife (Samantha Robinson) abominably, but he’s also a charismatic chancer who married too young and frets about his responsibilities as the breadwinner.

Dunbar finds surprising sympathy for her devil-may-care anti-hero – you can be wicked and loveable at the same time, she suggests, do damage and good all at once. It feels like the discussions that need to take place about what her play says won’t really begin until the supposed culprit of this saga – Stafford-Clark – is given his due and his contribution more loudly acknowledged.

Until Jan 27; tickets: 020 7565 5000; then touring