Rita, Sue and Bob

Andrea Dunbar’s play, described when it first appeared in1982 as “hilariously raunchy”, now strikes me as a bleak and brilliant testament to a life of fleeting pleasure and diminished expectations. Time has a strange effect on plays. We now know too much about the predatoriness of older men to find the opening scene as wildly funny as people seemingly did in 1982.

Rita and Sue, two 15-year-old girls, are being given a lift home by the married 27-year-old Bob after a night of babysitting. Having enticed them with extra money, Bob has sex with each girl in turn. Rita and Sue may not be as virginally innocent as Bob assumes. But, although the two girls are compliant, there is no disguising the fact that what we are watching is a mature man exploiting a pair of schoolgirls. Dunbar was clearly writing out of her own experience on Bradford’s Buttershaw council estate and, while the play has flashes of humour, one is hit by the sadness of the world it depicts. Sue lives in a household where you could cut the rancour with a knife. Rita feels increasing guilt over the nocturnal escapades with Bob.

Michelle, Bob’s wife, is justifiably suspicious of her husband and lays traps to ensnare the babysitters. Even Bob seems mired in self-delusion. It would be stretching things to call Dunbar a political writer but she was alert to the fact that Rita and Sue are being exploited economically as well as sexually. Both, on leaving school, work at the local mill on half-pay under a Youth Training Scheme: a system that even at the time was attacked for its use of cheap labour. Bob, who loses his job, also points out to the girls “there’s no hope for kids today and it’s all Maggie Thatcher’s fault”. This is a play of sharp observation rather than fierce polemic but it is impossible not to see it as a study of lives blighted by the harsh reality of a time that was to see 3 million unemployed. Kate Wasserberg’s production, on which Max Stafford-Clark initially worked, rightly doesn’t read us lectures. It keeps everything clear and simple and gets a set of honest, unglamorised performances.

Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson, making her stage debut, are excellent as Rita and Sue showing how their initial giggling complicity gives way to mutual estrangement. James Atherton as Bob hints at the character’s growing sense of self-awareness. And there is first-rate support from Samantha Robinson as his abused wife and from Sally Bankes and David Walker as Sue’s parents steeped in shared hostility.

The play is a record of its times. If it stands up well today, it is because Dunbar’s unflinching portrait of a world of limited horizons still seems chillingly resonant.

At the Royal Court theatre, London. 7/10


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