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A CurtainUp London Review
Rita, Sue and Bob Too
At the Critics Circle 100 year celebrations in 2007, the Drama Section honoured Stafford-Clark. We were told how he carried the Sunday Times theatre critic Harold Hobson, who had had polio, up the stairs to where the Jerwood Space Upstairs is now, on the Fifth Floor of the Sloane Square theatre in the days before the lift. It was Stafford-Clark's desire that Hobson should see and review the play on up there. In 2007 the Film Section of the Critics' Circle honoured film director Danny Boyle who told us how Stafford-Clarke found the resources to keep him as an associate at the Royal Court, after being turned down for a scholarship/award from, if memory serves me right, Thames Television.
This brings me to a predicament. How far back do we go in censoring those who were sexually profligate and predatory? Do we ban the paintings of Gauguin for his coupling with 12 year old girls in Polynesia and call that sexual abuse of children, but in a society where that was the norm? Do we refuse to recite Auden's poetry because we understand he used rent boys? Or, and this is my choice, do we condemn that behaviour but celebrate the art on its own merits?
The Royal Court was booked on the tour of Andrea Dunbar's play from Out of Joint first performed there in 1982. The problem wasn't just the publicity about the Out of Joint director but the subject matter of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, dealing as it does with a threesome between married man Bob and two 15 year old girls. In view of this, Vicky Featherstone took the decision to drop the play from the Royal Court's schedule but after a backlash from supporters of the woman playwright, she, in my opinion, courageously reinstated it.
So was Rita, Sue and Bob Too worth it? I loved it. Thirty five years on, it is a museum piece about sexism and mores common in the North of England then, which hopefully have been largely discontinued. Set 15 years before The Full Monty brought home the link between male unemployment and emasculation, Rita, Sue and Bob Too has the seeds of that divisiveness with women employed and men out of work.
Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) are babysitting for Bob (James Atherton) and Michelle (Samantha Robinson) and, as Bob drives them home, he takes the conversation ostensibly towards their sex education.
Hilariously, mullet-haired Bob uses the correct names for sexual anatomy and accessories which the girls only know the vernacular for, so they don't understand the word erection that they call "a hard on", or Durex which they call a "rubber johnny", or sexual intercourse for "have it off". They girls are not the innocents we might expect, they just don’t know the proper names. They tell Bob that they are virgins but wonder whether he believed them. He actually gives them a good lesson in how contraception works and invites them to try putting on a condom, on his erect penis, "Jesus, it looks like a frozen sausage". "Talk like that is dirty in our house. We haven't to say owt or we'll get a belt," says Sue.
The girl left out gets bored waiting for Bob to finish with the other one and they squabble about who gets to go first. Pretty soon I was sure I wasn't looking at the naive victims of a sexual predator but girls who were enjoying the sex with Bob as much as he was. This is tastefully staged in the car seats with just Bob's cute derriere on view along with the female facial evidence, that although they state differently, that the girls are not ecstatic.
Both girls are on a Youth Training Scheme at the local factory where Bob's wife, Michelle also works. Rita and Sue say they would be satisfied with the life Michelle has with Bob as they identify totally with his needs and not as feminists, in the days when the crowning achievement for a girl was the ring on the third finger of her left hand.
Bob suffers from unemployment and the erectile dysfunction that accompanies that loss of self esteem. The girls are savvy enough to know that if their behaviour gets into the open, Bob would be prosecuted for statutory rape and they speculate that they could be put into care of the Social Services as minors at risk.
We get a picture of Sue's hideous home life with her aggressive, bullying father (David Walker) and her no-nonsense nagging mother (Sally Bankes). It is an ugly portrait of family life and one which would make marriage to Bob an attractive prospect.
The comedy performances are superb all round under Kate Wasserburg's surefooted direction. She is the new artistic director of Out of Joint. I was left appreciating the living history of a museum piece reminding us of the stereotypical North South divide where the North of England seemed largely unaffected by the sexual and student revolution of the 1960s.
Vicky Featherstone was voted number One in The Stage magazine's Top 100 of the most successful British theatrical shakers and movers of the Year. Thoroughly deserved in my view for her courage as Artistic Director of the Royal Court in taking theatrical risks and staging plays rather than musicals!
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Rita, Sue and Bob Too by Andrea Dunbar
Directed by Vicky Featherstone and Jude Christian
Starring: James Atherton, Taj Atwal, Sally Bankes, Gemma Dobson, Samantha Robinson, David Walker
Design: Tim Shortall
Lighting Design: Jason Taylor
Sound Design: Emma Laxton
Movement: Dan Watson
Fight director: Alison de Burgh
Dramaturg: Titas Halder
Running time: One hour 20 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking at the Royal Court to 27th January 2018 then
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield 31st January to 3rd February 2018
Theatr Clwyd, Mold 6th to 10th February 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th January 2018 performance at Jerwood Space Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)
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