Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Royal Court, London, review: A well-judged revival

Paul Taylor
Taj Atwell as Rita, Gemma Dobson as Sue and James Atherton as Bob in 'Rita, Sue and Bob' at The Royal Court

This touring Out of Joint production has had a bumpy passage to the Royal Court stage. The theatre originally withdrew it from its schedule. In the post-Weinstein, #MeToo environment, artistic director Vicky Featherstone has admirably led the way in encouraging people to come forward with stories of sexual harassment and abuses of power within the theatre industry. How, so the thinking went, could a venue that has drawn up a code to protect workers from such ill-treatment showcase this 1982 play in which two teenage schoolgirls are groomed by the 27 year old married Bob who drives them home after they have been baby-sitting his children and engages in double sex-sessions with them in his car. A further problem is that its author, the late Andrea Dunbar, was championed by the pre-eminent director of new writing, Max Stafford-Clark, who commissioned Rita, Sue and Bob Too, directed it twice, and had started to co-direct it for a third time here, before leaving Out of Joint because of allegations of inappropriate, sexualised behaviour last September. It's no surprise that Featherstone found the situation “highly conflictual”.

After being accused of censorship and of banning a working class female voice, she reversed the decision. A good, wise move because, watching Kate Wasserberg's well-judged revival, you may feel that this is exactly the play to which we should be attending now. Dunbar, who was only 19 when she wrote the piece, is drawing on her own experiences of growing up in the urban deprivation of the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford. It doesn't present the story as shocking but as what happens in this community (the 1987 movie version was released with the tagline “Thatcher's Britain with her knickers down”). And that approach makes it all the more appalling. The logistics of having intercourse on a reclining car seat with an observer in the back are milked for some very funny moments, even if the sight of juddering male buttocks flanked by feet in schoolgirl ankle-socks rightly does not cause the hilarity that it did, for some, in 1982.

Taj Atwal's Rita and the Sue of Gemma Dobson, here making an impressive stage debut, capture beautifully the verve and innocent vulgarity of girls to whom sex is a welcome respite from school and the half-paid drudgery of the Youth Training Scheme at the local mill. But the performers show, at moments, that the pair are ribaldly play-acting a maturity to which they can't lay claim in order to impress one another and Bob. James Atherton finely conveys the weakness and self-doubt underlying Bob's cocky swagger: if he's the man he'd like to think he is and dissatisfied with his marriage to the suspicious would-be refined Michelle (excellent Samantha Robinson), why is he not fooling around with someone his own age?

The play is bracingly uncensored and often very funny – one of the more printable jokes being Bob's verdict on Michelle's cuisine: “She's the only woman I know that can burn a salad”. You do not lose sight of the fact that the girls are being shamelessly exploited by Bob, even as you can see how they are blinded by the glamour of his having a car and a detached house. It's textbook grooming. Dunbar brings a sharp eye and a steady gaze to the bleakness of these stunted no-future lives. Sally Bankes and David Walker are splendid as Sue's recriminatory parents and of course it's the girls who cop the blame and are called sluts when the secret is found out. To my ear, there's something a little forced in the play's one sequence of explicit political critique after Bob has lost his job: “There's no hope of kids today and it's all Margaret Thatcher's fault” and so. Happily, he soon desists from reading us a lecture. And one of the real virtues of this revival is that it does not go in for sermonising hindsight but lets this very good play speak for itself, Strongly recommended.

Until 27 January (royalcourtheatre.com)