Rita, Sue and Bob Too Caught in the Act at the Royal Court

Rita, Sue & Bob Too
A Play by Andrea Dunbar
Star Rating: *****
Royal Court
Sloane Square
London SW1
Review Date: 24th January 2018

Where did the time go? Is it really 36 years since Rita, Sue and Bob Too (RSBT) was first performed? It sure is. I have fond memories of watching the film (1987), which was extremely popular at the time. It actually started out as a play at the Royal Court Theatre, back in 1982, so not only was this a real throw back but on top of that, the play returned home this month to the place where it all started.

You may be aware that it very nearly didn’t make it as the Royal Court’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone pulled the plug on the show in December 2017 in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein/#MeToo furore. Following a public outcry over this she had a re-think and decided to let the play take to the stage at the Royal Court. It would have been perverse to pull it since it had toured England for months before arriving at the Royal Court. I’m glad she didn’t and the virtually sold out run of the show proves that many theatre goers agree with the decision that the show had to go on. I think that was worthwhile even if just to continue the debate and set in context event of the last few years to those highlighted in this story written back in 1982. Notwithstanding that more serious aspect to things, above all RSBT is a great, vibrant piece of theatre.

RSBT is a rip roaring, high energy play with plenty of laughter, swearing, rowing, emotional turmoil and full on high jinks of a graphic, but often highly amusing nature. We see this throughout in the story about the morally dubious behaviour of best friends Rita (Taj Atwell) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) who end up losing their innocence to married Bob (James Atherton) as he takes them home after they’ve babysat for his children. However he goes via the scenic rout of the Yorkshire Dales and somehow they all take a morally wrong turn on their journey. The graphic nature of some scenes, the frequent profanity and morally repugnant behaviour of the stars of the leading characters in the production at times makes for difficult and uncomfortable viewing. That’s a good thing as it’s a counter balance to the light-hearted, carefree, kick about  nature of much of the first half of the play. It’s also good to have edgy theatre that challenges and takes the viewer out of their comfort zone.

It may have been 36 years old, yet it seemed as fresh and as original as ever. At the time it was ground breaking and decades later I can’t recall any other stories, plays or films quite like this one. Although the behaviour of the principals Rita, sue and Bob is clearly wrong, what starts out as an amusing, high jinks adventure without consequences and long-term prospects starts to turn into something else with far higher stakes in play. We know and Rita, Sue and Bob all know full well there is an innocent wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson) who will be devastated if she finds out what’s going on.

There are a number of unexplored themes such as why Michelle’s lot is the way she is and why Bob seems to detest her so much. Outwardly she appears to be very attractive and attentive so one would wonder why Bob strays. It’s a play from a different era of course, yet some things don’t change. Rita and Sue were 15 year old school girls and they and Bob were sufficiently aware to know that not only was this adultery, but illegal behaviour (on Bob’s part – no pun intended) that carried a criminal conviction if it went to court, due to them being under age. Curiously enough adultery is not illegal, yet it a legal ground for divorce. Strange one that. Where biblical morality, sacred marital vows and the law meet but not all the way! However let’s not go there. This isn’t about the law courts, but a play at the Royal Court.

Those who thought the play should be banned miss the point, the nuance of the play. Strictly and morally speaking it’s of course, all wrong, but, depending on the viewer’s opinion, the girls don’t appear to be entirely innocent ingénues. They are willing participants from the start and Bob barely had to coerce them into doing anything they didn’t want to do. All three start out seeing it as harmless fun with no more ulterior motive than that. Where the play’s dramatic tensions builds and rises, like Bob when he’s in full flow so to speak, is as the wife and parents of the girls begin to wonder what they are up to and work out who they are up to no good with. The tensions and almighty rows between daughter and father; husband and wife, best friends Rita and Sue, show theatre at its vibrant, exciting best.

RSBT is a terrific story and it was great to see it again and be reminding of just how good a story it was. It was written by the late Andrea Dunbar when she was just 18 years old and is superbly acted by all six actors, all of whom have integral parts in the overall story.

RSBT, a joint production with the Royal Court Theatre, Out of Joint and Octagon Theatre Bolton, has a warm, throwback, Northern feel to it. Set in Bradford, Yorkshire, it’s great to hear Northern accents on the London stage and the ‘80’s musical backdrop was a joy to hear and helped place the production firmly in the 1980’s.

© Tiemo Talk of the Town

© Photographs courtesy of Richard Davenport and Out of Joint Productions

Rita, Sue and Bob Too can be seen at the Royal Court 9 -27th January 2018, then in Huddersfield, Wales and Glasgow until 17th February 2018. Tickets and further information available from Out of Joint  productions.

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