Review: Rita, Sue And Bob Too (Bristol Old Vic)

Andrea Dunbar’s play is revived 35 years after its original production

Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal and James Atherton
Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal and James Atherton
© Richard Davenport

Andrea Dunbar provided a shot of adrenalin to British theatre in the early 1980s. Her input of three short semi-autobiographical plays may have been small but the impact they made were huge.

Unfortunately her new found fame in theatrical and later film circles could not protect her from the tough start she had in life, she was dead at the age of 29 from a brain haemorrhage brought on after years of increasing alcohol dependency.

If the Daily Mail line of 'the genius straight from the slums' is too glib by far there is a kernel of truth in that Dunbar weaved alchemy out of the situations she knew. Sex is at the forefront of No show with id 137125 exists!, the two schoolgirls frequently getting down and dirty in married father Bob's car. It should be queasy, an older man taking advantage of two under-age schoolgirls, the kind of thing that should get newspaper columnists all in a lather, yet here its played matter of fact. It's just the kind of thing that happened on the council estates in Bradford where Dunbar grew up. Sex is a lot more fun for these girls than their hopeless trips to the YTS.

It is the non-judgemental tone that allows the work to accrue what power it has. James Atherton's Bob is the swaggering big-haired Tony Manero of the estate, ready for a bunk-up with anyone that enters his orbit, yet underneath shows the pain he feels with a wife who refuses to get intimate with him and unemployment that makes him feel crushed. Deep down he is a pathetic man, only of interest to young girls who haven't seen through him yet. Even his bedroom skills need some work, as displayed in the hilarious opening scene, where he seduces each girl individually in the car. Lack of space and even less room for foreplay makes for some terrible laugh out loud sex scenes, Bob's buttocks judding enthusiastically away while the two schoolgirls legs barely merit a tremble.

There is a highly impressive stage debut from Gemma Dobson as the mouthy Sue while Taj Atwal is the more sweetly knowing Rita. Max Stafford-Clark returns to a work he originally brought to the stage in 1982 (along with co-director Kate Wasserberg) and brings the fastidious sense of attention to the dialogue that he is renowned for. Yet ultimately it all feels a little dated. Politics change, society shifts, no longer are women in such thrall to dead-beat males, horizons limited to the street you were born or is under-age sex played for laughs. Its retro '80s soundtrack doesn't help, all greatest hits that get its audience moving along but feel more suited to retro nights down the pub rather than songs that were prevalent on the council estate wireless.

Yet if one can't help but see the work more as an exercise in ticking off the theatrical bucket list than a work that is highly pertinent today, the nagging question underneath is where are today's Andrea Dunbars? Stafford-Clark, found an authentic, original and highly talented working-class voice for the theatre because he was actively looking and prepared to shove the works onto the stage, flaws and all, not workshopped down to within an inch of their lives. It is scandalous that coming up 40 years later that glass ceiling that writers from certain backgrounds face still hasn't shattered.

No show with id 137125 exists! runs at Bristol Old Vic unti 7 Ocotber and then continues on tour.