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Review: Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Jade Fox reviews Octagon Theatre Bolton’s revival of Andrea Dunbar’s seminal classic

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In 1982 Rita, Sue and Bob Too told it how it was. The voice of writer Andrea Dunbar showcased reality using sharp humour and an even sharper social commentary. Her presentation of an estate in 1970/80’s Yorkshire was controversial but on the whole was received with high acclaim.

Her voice has now been able to speak again. Octagon Theatre Bolton, Out of Joint and Royal Court Theatre has revived the 80s and for good reason. To encapsulate this play simply as two young girls having an affair with a married man would be an injustice.

Within the play itself, the older generation denounces Rita and Sue, using the dreaded label ‘slut’, and Bob repeatedly claims his innocence because his wife Michelle is boring in the bedroom. However, the audience is expertly guided through this tirade of opinion, left with a conclusion that is hard to face.

Rita and Sue are undeserving of the title ‘home-wreckers’ in the same way that Michelle’s lack of sexual prowess does not excuse her husband’s actions. Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson bring a clever innocence to Rita and Sue which massively highlights the pair’s age and immaturity. Since the two are so compelling, Bob quickly becomes the villain.

He is almost likeable in his humour yet his unsavoury opinions make him an easily recognisable figure: the lying and self-righteous husband. Bob is made colourful by actor James Atherton and his ability to deliver outdated sexism with irritating entitlement. In fact, all three characters live up to their acclaim. When they appear together, the actors give a masterful performance of fast-talking crude humour while simultaneously pointing to where our sympathies should lie.

Scene transitions are deemed the perfect time to show off the epic music that goes hand in hand with the time period. Although parts of the choreography are a little stiff and lacking in spontaneity, this is made up for by the lip syncing which entertains audience members, causing some of them to bop along in their seats.  The explicit nature of the play may initially be received with some silence and the stiff English upper lip but nudity soon becomes a thing of delight. Rita and Sue, when they aren’t partaking in sex with Bob, provide captivatingly detailed expressions and perfectly timed commentary, bringing audience members to tears.

Relationship dynamics are handled with care. The tropes of unhappily married couples in this play are superbly faithful — if we turned back the clock that is. To see the brutal reality of marital arguments onstage in 2017 is something which could have easily lost the favour of a modern audience. However, Sally Bankes and David Walker’s hilarious portrayal of Sue’s mum and dad succeeds in revealing the attitudes of the older generation from this era.

The piece boils down to the fact that these girls rarely entertain the notion of a way out of the estate. They truly believe that Bob’s wife could not be luckier to have a husband, children and every outfit she could ever wish to wear. This proves to be perhaps the most false of their assumptions, alongside the hope that Bob has their best interests at heart.