Oscar Wilde declared that there is nothing so out of date as the recently fashionable. The Out of Joint Theatre Company has gambled with their revival of this acclaimed eighties one act play, first performed in 1982 about Thatcherite Britain, that the writing would travel effectively into twenty first century Austerity Britain. Written by working class shooting star Andrea Dunbar, who died tragically young, aged twenty- nine, this is a tale of under- age sex, dark humour, and grit, semi-autobiographical, and written when she was just nineteen years old.
Original director Max Stafford Smith championed Dunbar as an unknown. Current Director Kate Wasserberg has produced the play faithfully as a period piece rather than try to shoe-horn it into the present day. A contemporaneous soundtrack, conceived by sound designer Emma Laxton, reinforces that sense of time and place, providing the oil and space between scene changes, following the timeline of the story from 1982 month by month, from the likes of Blondie, Human League and , of course, Gary Numan’s “Cars”.
Ostensibly the play is about lecherous, amorous Bob, and his rage at a society within which he feels a trapped loser. He justifies his extramarital interests by his wife’s sexual froideur, but he displays precious little to warm her up. James Atherton handles the tricky role of Bob with great skill. It would be easy to play a loathsome predatory pervert, instead he stays the right side of caricature, and even has time to deliver the centre piece political diatribe; “there’s no hope for kids today and it’s all Maggie Thatcher’s fault.” His easy patter beguiles all, his crude core does not, when exposed. Tim Shortall’s set and costume design is functional, effective and evocative. Four car seats centre stage do what they have to do, framed on either side by the exteriors of tired flats, a pastoral backcloth of the moors broods over proceedings out of reach in the distance . The clothes are painfully accurate.
The early pivotal scene of Bobs’ bare buttocks as he has sex with the ankle sock clad girls still shocks and amuses in equal measure, awkward, funny, and expertly timed, with some wonderful physical expressions from all. It is the dialogue which shines, particularly the dialogue between the women, but also between Bob, Rita and Sue. Quick – paced, crude, and authentic. The strap line for the film version of this play (1987) was; “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down”, it was a good summary.
At its heart , the play is about the women. Rita and Sue aspire to be like Michelle ( Samantha Robinson), Bob’s wife, simply because she has a husband, black tights, high heels and trendy clothes, but feel the strain of a shared sexual liaison. Michelle struggles with a feckless husband, and it is the girls who are condemned as sluts, their unjustified labelling as home wreckers skilfully rolled out, as they wriggle, trapped within the confines of the Estate.
The performances of Taj Atwal (Rita) and Gemma Dobson (Sue), convince as teenage pals, part adult, part child ,with great chemistry between the two. Their innocence counterpointing Bob’s leering predation. Bravely they are not portrayed as victims, nor do they see themselves as such. Sex is fun. Sex is free. The idea of two working class girls seeking escape was reprised, albeit in lighter, softer tones, in Frank Clarke’s film “Letter to Brezhnev”(1985), but this story eschews the romantic. This is about getting a jump. Sally Bankes and David Walker are brilliant as Sue’s mum and dad. The former faces down the latter’s every brash empty threat, the latter displays nifty footwork while dancing drunk to “Tainted Love” without spilling a chip from his bag. Every teenager, and parent of a teenager, will recognise something in the performance.
The judgement of how well Thatcherite Britain transposes into Austerity Britain I suspect will be determined by the politics of the audience, for me it worked well. What is unequivocally apparent is the brilliance of the dialogue. The audience were wincing, laughing and gasping, so sharp was the script. Highlights from the night include a lively argument between Rita and Sue as to who gets to shag Bob first, and an hilarious on street showdown as the story draws to a close, in which all parties let the other know exactly how they feel.
Dunbar’s absence has left a hole not easily filled. A well -attended opening night audience, some of whom had passed on the nearby attraction of Derby County’s home game with Queens Park Rangers, gave the performance a rousing reception at the final curtain. After the show, the cast returned for a question and answer session which only reinforced the cast and Director’s commitment to the play, and admiration for Dunbar’s writing. The Out of Joint Theatre company remember her legacy in fine style with this production. “Rita Sue and Bob Too” plays till Sat 25th at Derby, then continues its nationwide tour.
For more about Andrea Dunbar:https://garylongden.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/rita-sue-bob-too-derby-theatre-preview/