Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court Theatre
Andrea Dunbar’s Rita Sue and Bob Too emerged in 1982 as a jubilant rebuttal to the kitchen sink dramas and grim economic realities of the North – open to interpretation as both a playful sex farce, and also as a comment on the spiralling loss of opportunity for small communities. Revived for a #MeToo-conscious audience, the play’s outmoded stance on sexual power dynamics means it works more as a curious time-capsule than effective theatre.
Rita, Sue and Bob too tracks the backseat sexual fumblings of the titular threesome, as the 27-year-old Bob engages in weekly trysts with his 15-year-old babysitters. Opening with an all-too swiftly escalating scene of predation by Bob (the press night audience was visibly discomfited by this sequence, which was presumably played for laughs in the initial staging), Dunbar tracks the fallout of the trio’s affair, framing it as their sole respite from the twin evils of claustrophobia and unemployment that shroud the small town.
Dunbar, 19 at the time of writing, treads the topics of consent and agency carefully, imbuing Rita and Sue with buoyant wit and temerity, but the play’s sympathetic treatment of Bob is problematic for a 2018 audience. What was once a sex farce assumes the air of a bleak drama on the receding hopes and oppressive sexism for today’s audience, as each character reverts to sex as flight from the banal – whether it’s Bob’s diminishing freelance handyman schedule, or the girls’ Youth Training Scheme for which they receive half-pay. To expand the inner lives of the three, however, their home lives demand more depth. The discord between Bob (a suitably world-weary James Atherton), and his wife Michelle (a sparkling Samantha Robinson), approaches this, but the girls deserve more fleshed-out back stories.
The repeated comic beats about sexual dysfunction draw fewer laughs as the piece progresses, and the girls’ sparky tête-à-têtes warp into prickly, adolescent resentment. Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson have brilliant comic timing as Rita and Sue – their characters feel truly lived-in, and they navigate the verbal see-saw of Dunbar’s script, for which it has been so celebrated, with glee. Unfortunately Rita, Sue and Bob Too mingles its clear adoration for its characters with a predictable plot and problematic sentiment – one can’t help but wonder what a 2018 update by the likes of Alice Birch would resemble instead.
Photo: Out of Joint
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is at the Royal Court Theatre from 9th until 27th January 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.