Rita, Sue and Bob Too at Bristol Old Vic

You’d think a play about an older man having extra-marital sex with two 15-year old school girls would have any audience frowning with concern rather than laughing throughout. But this is Rita, Sue and Bob Too, written in 1982 for the stage by a 19-year old Andrea Dunbar and turned into a hugely successful Alan Clarke film, a piece of social commentary on life in working class Britain impactful enough to be analysed in Film Studies’ lectures. 

Set in Bradford, Rita and Sue are babysitters for Bob and Michelle. After the conjugally struggling couple have returned from their nights out together, Bob drives the girls back to their council estate via parks and lay-bys for a ‘jump’ (sex). The pair are virgins, which Bob doesn’t seem to mind, Rita observes. That shouldn’t deserve a laugh, right? But it receives far more than a chuckle. We’re exposed to Bob’s bare bottom as he humps each girl in turn in a sex scene that has (way too) many audience members tittering embarrassedly. If, initially, the girls are fairly nonchalant about these Friday night escapades in the front seat of Bob’s car, they start to look forward to their meetings, which relieve the otherwise everyday monotony of their lives in a socially deprived area of the city.

So, why with such a potentially dark subject matter does this Out of Joint production tickle so many funny bones? We’ve seen many performances at Bristol Old Vic and this was among the most uplifting of them all. The back drop is the city, impressively lit up during night-time, always there, inescapable. Tim Shortall’s set is dominated by the all-important car seats, where the real ‘action’ takes place. The soundtrack is straight from the Top 40 of 1981/82, think Soft Cell, Culture Club, Human League – all pure pop that the six-strong cast incorporate into their performance, bopping away as if down the social club at the end of their street. Dunbar’s script is full of innuendo, cussing and northern humour. Mark (born about 2 years after Rita and Sue, up t’road in Manchester into social housing) loved the roles of both of Sue’s parents, played by Sally Banks and David Walker. Banks’ mum, in particular, is someone we can all relate to, even if just from myriad strong female characters in Corrie over the years.

From a convincing child-man by James Atherton in the role of Bob, to sweet and slightly naive Rita, played by Taj Atwal, to Samantha Robinson’s accepting (but ultimately not) Michelle, each member of the cast has immense fun with this play, pulling the audience along in one of the most effortless theatre visits I can ever remember. The stand out performance for me, though, is Gemma Dobson as Sue, in this, her professional stage debut. Dobson plays her character with bubbles, warmth and a lot of promise.

There is little victimhood is this piece. Everyone seems to know what to do, where they fit, without question. And if the subjugation of women by their menfolk is cringe-worthy from a middle-class 2017 perspective, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still prevalent today. In fact, the whole show seems somewhat voyeuristic from the stalls of this beautiful old theatre, packed to the brim with educated, relatively well off folk.

You know, I could write a dissertation of on the issues raised in Rita, Sue and Bob Too and they definitely need discussing. But not here. Go and see it, get lost in nostalgia and take a mate you can talk to afterwards.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too shows at Bristol Old Vic until 7th October.

See more on Out of Joint here

Image by Richard Davenport, with thanks

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