Review: Rita, Sue and Bob Too at Liverpool Playhouse

By Nigel Smith

IT’S hard to imagine what Andrea Dunbar might have further contributed to theatre had her life not been cut so tragically short, but the works that she did leave behind provide intensely human snapshots of very real people and lives.

Possibly the fact that she had never set foot inside a theatre before writing her first play (The Arbour, which premiered in 1980) made her all the more able to forget dramatic conventions and concentrate entirely on narrative and dialogue. Her sense of honesty and social realism shocked audiences in the 1980s and the writing continues to extract gasps of disbelief from audiences over thirty years later.

Following the success of The Arbour, Dunbar was commissioned to follow it up with a new work for London’s Royal Court. Rita, Sue and Bob Too opened in 1982, under the Direction of Max Stafford-Clark. Stafford-Clark co-directs this new, touring revival with Kate Wasserberg, who is shortly to succeed him as artistic director of Out of Joint, co-producing here with Bolton Octagon and the Royal Court.

The production remains faithful to its period, with a panoramic scene of the hills, moors and town beyond hemmed in on either side by the old low-rise flats of Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate. The dialogue, although newly edited for this version, holds it in period too, but somehow this anchor to Thatcher’s Britain makes comparisons to the present day all the more revealing.

From the opening scenes in which Bob takes the teenage babysitters Rita and Sue home in his car, the cast pull no punches with their performances. Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson (in an impressive professional debut here) balance a feigned naivety with thinly veiled knowing as Bob explains how to use a “rubber johnny”, apparently believing the girls’ claims to be virgins. In the first of a number of appearances of his buttocks, James Atherton (Bob) turns to face the audience rearward and the usual theatrical requirement for us to employ our imagination to fill in the gaps is promptly dispensed with.

It’s at this point that watching fellow audience members becomes almost as intriguing as what’s on stage, but those of us who don’t squint between our fingers are treated to some splendid acting from whichever of the girls is watching with equal disbelief from the back seat of the car, and this goes on both occasions as they awkwardly swap places and take their turns.

In between these toe-curling scenes in Bob’s car unfold the most telling parts of the play. Sue’s father’s rage and railing against Rita is balanced by her mum’s more pragmatic approach. There is something disarming about her acceptance that her daughter needs to find some sort of fun wherever she can get it, as we don’t know what the future will bring. With the benefit of hindsight we can’t avoid reflecting that Andrea Dunbar herself was dead less than a decade later, and that maybe this search for excitement was about the best these teenagers could hope to aspire to.

Dunbar herself is reported to have commented “It weren’t so funny when it were happening” when seeing how much humour there was in the writing during rehearsal for The Arbour. Through the obvious comedy in the play, it’s clear that the importance of the piece is in the sense of sadness that lies beneath the laughter.

With a strong cast, all of whom bring striking reality to their performances, we somehow feel as though we’ve been transported back three decades, aided by a soundtrack of music from the period that covers the brief scene changes. Would it be possible to shift the piece into the present day? Yes it probably would, but maybe this feeling of temporal separation gives us pause to reflect on the strange cycles that society moves in.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is at the Playhouse till Saturday and continues touring until February.