When you mention 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too' to people of a certain vintage, they will smile nostalgically and recall the 1987 film detailing the comedic exploits of two teenage babysitters from a council estate in Bradford, and their hilarious sexual shenanigans with local lothario Bob.
The film was based on an earlier 1982 play by Andrea Dunbar, who was only 19 years old when it was first staged by the Royal Court Theatre, and whilst the laughs are still plentiful, this timely revival also makes some very pertinent points about attitudes to class and gender both then and now.
We are introduced to Sue (Gemma Dobson) and Rita (Alyce Liburd) as carefree working class teenage girls looking for nothing more than 'a laugh and a jump' with local 'jack the lad' Bob (John Askew). The opening scene depicts the awkward, romance-free reality of their sexual liaisons, taking place in the front of a car with legs flailing and bottoms pumping; it is both hilarious and grimly sad at the same time. Bob unhappily married to Michelle (Samantha Robinson), and we watch as their marriage deteriorates against the backdrop of unemployment and division, that was northern England under Thatcher in the early 1980's. We also see something of the background of Sue, her alcoholic and violent father (David Walker) and fiery mother (Susan Mitchell) constantly fighting and swearing, frustrated by their lot in life.
Dunbar's writing is extraordinarily realistic and gritty, humorous and sad, without ever straying into the mawkish sentimentality that the later film is guilty of. She manages to portray the characters as sympathetic, despite their universally loathsome characteristics, and leave the audience mostly smiling at their actions rather than repulsed by them. This is especially difficult with the Bob, as we learn his cheerful sexual conquests are with two 15 year old girls who are still in school. In the light of the recent grooming scandals in Rotherham and Bolton, allied to the #MeToo movement, it is fair to say that a 2019 theatre audience found this revelation to be an uncomfortable watch.
The entire cast of just six are uniformly excellent, the natural way they bounce off each other in conversation is testament to the comfort with which they inhabit the characters. Dobson is outstanding as Sue; I saw her playing Jo in 'A Taste of Honey' at Oldham Coliseum last year and she brings that same combination of feisty naivety to this piece. Director Kate Wasserberg and Designer Tim Shorthall, utilise a spare set, just four chairs, against a backdrop of Bradford in a semi-rural idyll with lights twinkling, this almost pastoral beauty juxtaposed against the harsh reality of the lives being portrayed on stage. Despite their apparent exploitation both sexually and emotionally, it is the female characters who are the strongest and most enduring and Dunbar had a clarity when expressing their authentic working class voices. The theatre lost a unique talent with her tragic early death at just 29.
Above all this is a love story, not the crude sexual relationship between the three eponymous characters, but between Rita and Sue, who are determined to squeeze every drop of fun out of their limited lives. The audience arrived with expectations of a farcical sex comedy, they got that but also something far more bittersweet and tender, and left with tears of a different type in their eyes.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 9th April 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★