Disentangling the performance of Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court from the wider controversy surrounding its cancelation-then-reinstatement, is like unknotting a set of iPhone headphones: every time you attack one tangled clump, another appears and sends you hurtling into despair. Andrea Dunbar’s play, which opened at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton in September 2017, was originally co-directed by Max Stafford-Clark and Kate Wasserberg for Out of Joint. Following accusations of sexual harassment, Stafford-Clark left the company and Vicky Featherstone cancelled the play’s Royal Court dates because staging it felt at odds with the theatre’s recent work to combat sexual harassment in the industry. She then reversed the decision after a conversation with Caryl Churchill convinced her that staging the play was the correct thing to do.
[Let’s pause to consider one of many possible adjuncts to this conversation. When public figures change their mind this is often taken as a sign of weakness – the maligned ‘flip-flop’ of a politician, for example. But Featherstone’s ability to say, “I had a think about this and I decided to go another way,” can actually be seen as a very powerful act. ‘Powerful’ because it refuses to accept that re-evaluation is weak – when in fact we could do with more leaders demonstrating self-reflection – and ‘powerful’ because it nods to a new way of operating wherein people in positions of power don’t conform to the traditional macho gold-standard of leadership. (I also struggle to think of a more glorious reason for making any decision than: “I had a conversation with Caryl Churchill.”)]
But what about the play? Half-forgotten and entangled in the mess of off-stage debate is the production itself. Tim Shortall’s design has the characters wedged between two red brick tower blocks and a panoramic view of Bradford houses dolloped between rolling hills. Despite the expanse of sky and land behind them, the static frame created by the brickwork brings a constant claustrophobia to the action.
From shagging in cars to huddling together for a stolen fag break, Rita (Taj Atwal), Sue (Gemma Dobson) and all the others are frequently found in confined spaces. The landscape stretched out on the back wall of the stage thus becomes a clever subversion of the clichéd ‘green and pleasant land’; a reminder that for many people living in Britain their connection to the land is less a celebration of its beauteous bounty and more the literal realisation of being bogged down in a place of constricted horizons and limited opportunities.
Similarly, the play itself is firmly rooted in its time period – a fact Vicky Featherstone picked up on in her interview on Radio Four’s Front Row when commenting that we would now view the relationship between Bob, Rita and Sue as “grooming”. The production itself, however, has a lot of fun with evoking the 1980s, particularly Shortall’s costume design. The two teenagers might make fun of her, but Bob’s wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson) has a spectacular wardrobe of oversized jumpers, cropped Capri pants and patent stilettos. In one scene, Rita and Sue make bitchy comments about her breasts in a tight top, only for Michelle to walk back into the room have flung on as superior a piece of 80s knitwear as ever there was, and quite clearly a jumper that deserves as many outings as possible.
Dunbar’s own references in the script to the time period, however, now sound a little too obvious. Bob’s sudden outburst about what Thatcher is doing to the country sits oddly within a play that implicitly and shrewdly demonstrates what effect the government is having on its citizens. In other ways though, it completely stands up as a piece of writing and remains remarkable as the output of a nineteen-year-old.
One of the bonuses of deciding to perform it at the Royal Court is that it’s now running alongside My Mum’s A Twat by Anoushka Warden. Both plays capture and take seriously the experience of teenage girls. They also demonstrate the gloriousness of women being crude, how it’s our divine right to make cock jokes as part-recompense for putting up with all the other bullshit. Indeed, it’s the play’s depiction of female relationships – mothers and daughters; best friends; older and younger women – that makes it worth performing, whatever the surrounding context of the moment. As the title cleverly makes clear, it’s Rita and Sue who are the real stars of the story, with Bob something of an afterthought.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is on until 27 January 2018 at the Royal Court Theatre. Click here for more details.