This revival of a play which enjoyed considerable success as a film, comes to Derby Theatre on the 21st November. It is impossible to discuss the play without discussing the playwright, and rather than burden the review of the opening night next Tuesday with too much background, I thought the production worthy of a preview.
Andrea Dunbar was the Amy Winehouse of her theatrical generation, a glowing, glowering, talent, who died young at twenty- nine years of age. When someone quotes “twenty years experience” in something, I am often moved to ask “Twenty years experience? Or one year’s experience twenty times? Dunbar was the obverse of this. A young woman who achieved much professionally from the time of the inception of her first play “Arbor” as a fifteen year old, to her untimely death. Personally, life crammed an indecent amount into her short time, the George Michael line “What we learn we rarely choose” a fitting epitaph to those years.
Dunbar was raised in Bradford in Brafferton Arbor on the Buttershaw council estate , one of seven brothers and sisters, and attended the local Comprehensive secondary school. There she began writing her first play “The Arbor” in 1977 at the age of 15, writing it as a classroom assignment for CSE English. It was autobiographical in part, and the sum total of a multitude of first hand experiences and second -hand anecdotes. The combination of her bright, sharp writing style, and the gritty realism of her subject matter was a recipe for success.
It was premiered in 1980 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, directed by Max Stafford-Clark and jointly won the Young Writers’ Festival, before progressing on to be performed in New York. The play described the experiences of a pregnant teenager with an abusive drunken father, and was widely acclaimed leading to her being featured in the BBC’s Arena arts’ documentary series. Commenting on the play, Director Max Stafford-Clark said; “When Andrea wrote her first two plays, she was a teenager from a rough council estate who’d never been to the theatre. Now, thirty-five years after its premiere, Rita Sue and Bob Too takes its place in the Octagon and Royal Court’s seasons in the role of Classic Play. It’s one of the privileges of my career that Andrea’s astute, fresh and funny writing reached my desk, and it is exciting to bring her vivid, albeit alarming world to life again with these fine actors.”
Dunbar was quickly commissioned to write a follow-up work, creating Rita, Sue and Bob Too, first performed in 1982. The play explored similar themes to The Arbor, in this case depicting the lives of two teenage girls who are both having an affair with the same married man.
The film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987) was adapted for the cinema by Dunbar and directed by Alan Clarke. It divided opinion on the Buttershaw estate, with several residents becoming hostile in an area where she still lived.
Her personal life was chaotic. She had fallen pregnant at 15, but the baby was stillborn at 6 months. She later had three children by three different fathers. The first, Lorraine, was born in 1979 to an Asian father. A year later, in 1980, Lisa was born, again while Andrea was still a teenager. As a single mother, Dunbar spent 18 months in a Women’s Aid refuge and battled a dependency on alcohol. Her relationship with Lorraine was strained, seventeen years after Durbar’s death, Loraine, a heroin addict, was convicted of manslaughter for causing the death of her child by gross neglect after the child ingested a lethal dose of methadone. In 1990 she died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29 years old.
All of the above is infused into her three plays. Written in Thatcher Britain , her writing now plays in Austerity Britain. The characters, and characterisations, can seem awkward. Working-class life is depicted awash with alcohol, casual sex and debauchery, against a backcloth of squalor, deprivation and poverty with sex free upfront, and no price to be paid after.
The central dynamic of the play, an older man bedding two fifteen year olds, is as unsettling now, as it was then, probably even more so with the Grooming Gang Scandals which have beset several towns and cities, including Bradford. Yet this is no moralistic polemic. Durbar just tells it as it is with an authentic voice that disturbs because of its verite rather than a result of the subject matter. Her gift is of story -telling and dialogue, dialogue that is witty, sharp acerbic, melancholic and brutal. Although the political landscape may have turned full circle, the position of women in society has shifted. Superficially, women’s confidence in themselves seems greater now, whether that is true on the Arbor, I am not so sure.
I know we are guaranteed some bawdy laughs on Tuesday night, how Tour Director Kate Wasserberg plays the female roles will be the intriguing part. The Rita, Sue and Bob Too UK tour is co-produced by Out of Joint, Royal Court Theatre and Octagon Theatre.
Rita Sue and Bob Too runs at the Derby theatre from 21/11- 28./11/17.