Review - Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court
This play was originally written when its author Andrea Dunbar was just 19 and premiered by the Royal Court in 1982; now it has returned there 36 years later. But Dunbar is not here to see it; she died, aged just 29, in 1990 of a brain haemorrhage. She had a brief, troubled life - she was a heavy drinker and had three children by three fathers, the eldest of whom became a heroin addict and was convicted of causing the death of her child by gross neglect after the child ingested a lethal dose of methadone.
So this early autobiographical play is, in that context, no laughing matter, as it portrays life on the margins and shows two 15-year-old girls who are babysitters to a handsome 27-year-old neighbour and his wife getting their kicks by letting him have sex with each of them when he gives them a lift home afterwards.
Context is all; the revival has itself run into tricky waters, after its originally billed co-director (and co-editor of this revised text) Max Stafford--Clark himself stood accused of the sexual harassment and abuse charges of people he worked with and was dismissed from Out of Joint, the theatre he co-founded after leaving the Royal Court.
The current incumbent as artistic director Vicky Featherstone originally cancelled the planned London transfer for this touring production, describing it as "highly conflictual", in the current climate; but she soon boldly retreated from that position and reinstated the play after accusations of censoring a female voice were loudly and rightly made - it was ironic that the alleged bad behaviour of a man, albeit one who had vigorously championed female voices, was silencing one.
After all that fuss and upset, it is both heartening that London is getting the chance to see it again - even if the play is itself a disheartening portrait of bleak lives in the shadow of the Thatcher-era of mass unemployment and working class annihilation.
It is, however, both toughly and tenderly observed, and played with a spirit of open-hearted honesty and sadness under Kate Wasserberg's direction. As the eponymous Rita and Sue, Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson are a perfect combination of innocence and awareness; James Atherton's Bob is an opportunistic but also with his own unmet needs and frustrations. There's also terrific work from Sally Bankes and David Walker as Sue's parents and Samantha Robinson as Bob's wife.