Guardian columnist and author Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on Andrea Dunbar’s extraordinary portrait of teenage girls Rita, Sue and Bob Too.
To have a play produced for the Royal Court at the age of 19 is an astonishing achievement. For it to be your second play (the first, The Arbor, having been written by Dunbar at 15 about her teenage pregnancy and subsequent stillbirth, was also put on at the Royal Court), and for you to be a working class woman from one of the roughest council estates in Bradford is a rise of astronaut proportions. Even now, a class ceiling ensures that voices like Andrea Dunbar’s are largely absent from the arts, perhaps even more so than they were in 1982, when Rita, Sue and Bob Too was first staged.
Times have changed since the Thatcher era, but not so much that modern audiences will struggle to recognise the world Dunbar draws with such raw humour. We have a different female Tory prime minister in 2017, but one who equally seems to believe there’s no such thing as society. As food bank use rockets and the younger generation face a housing crisis, the conservatives’ austerity policies continue to hit the most vulnerable.
Some will look at the world Dunbar came from – the Buttershaw estate where she continued to live until her premature death at the age of 29 was one of the poorest in Bradford – and marvel that she found anything to laugh about. Her semi-autobiographical tale of the friendship between two teenagers, Rita and Sue, and their “affair” with the older, married Bob which begins when he drives them home from babysitting his children crackles with sharp humour. Self-pity is entirely absent; Rita and Sue seem to be in possession of their own sexualities, yet are innocent by the standards of today’s teenagers, who can have porn clips beamed into their smartphones at a moment’s notice. They are also, obviously, under the age of consent, and though this is referenced, their relationship with the sleazy Bob is viewed by the girls themselves as bleakly but amusingly par for the course. A succession of abuse scandals that have come to light may have left you wondering whether the concept of grooming existed in 1982. Dunbar implies that the answer is not simple, though audiences may disagree. In a way it is courageous and perhaps controversial to stage this play now.
Rita and Sue have the cocky sexual self-assurance of girls who’ve been fumbling since their early teens, yet neither knows how to put a condom on (Rita is even too embarrassed to buy sanitary towels), nor are equipped with the resilence or maturity to deal with the fallout of their sexual relationships with Bob. When it all finally falls apart, it is they who are left shouldering the blame as “sluts” who should be ashamed of themselves, while Bob is largely exempt – even his wife accuses them of putting it on plate. There’s a feeling that this is just how men are, nothing but trouble, unable to control themselves when tempted.
What makes Rita, Sue and Bob Too so successful as a piece of drama is its confrontational and unsentimental presentation of the characters; there is nothing “actorly” about them; these are real people, you can tell from the way they speak, and joke, and most of all swear. “This is life, the facts are there … these things do go on – maybe not in every circle, but certainly in mine”, Dunbar told the Yorkshire Post. To audiences who saw the much-loved film adaptation, this was “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down”, but to Dunbar there was little shocking about it, it was just the way things were. Her ambivalence, her refusal to moralise, and her insistence on portraying Rita and Sue’s lust for life despite their grim surroundings.
Class is a constant undercurrent in the play. Bob is married, employed, aspirational, from a posher part of town. He and his wife Michelle have the funds to pay two local girls to babysit while they enjoy evenings out. Michelle is a machinist and part-time Avon lady with a wardrobe full of the kinds of clothes that others can only dream of. Meanwhile Rita and Sue are about to leave school and are on YTS at the mill. “She’s got everything a woman could ask for,” says Rita. “Her own house. A nice husband and a couple of kids. She can buy what she wants. And still she’s not satisfied. I wouldn’t mind what she’s got. I’d be satisfied.”
The affair ends up, in a way, providing both Rita and Sue with a passport out of the estate – Rita to what she hopes will be a more comfortable, middle-class life with Bob (though he has fallen on hard times and lost the biggest symbol of his sexual prowess – his car), and Sue to a new relationship with a fella you assume is more age-appropriate. She says that she misses the estate, but what it turns into over the years is something even worse, with booze and glue-sniffing replaced by heroin. In A State Affair, a play based on interviews with residents that was commissioned in 2000, audiences returned to the Buttershaw estate to discover that it was, if possible, even grimmer up North. “[Today] Rita and Sue would be smack heads… on crack as well… and working the red light district, sleeping with everybody and anybody for money. Bob would probably be injecting heroin”, said Andrea Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, at the time. She went on to be convicted of manslaughter after her one-year-old son ingested her methadone.
The world of Rita, Sue and Bob Too could be seen as rather innocent in comparison. At the time the play was first performed, there were some residents of the estate who took objection to its portrayal, but what Dunbar did is hold a mirror up to her world with a lack of sentimentality that was defiant and courageous. She was one of seven children, with an abusive father, and by 18 was a single mother with three children of her own and living in a women’s refuge in Keighley. She could have so easily fallen by the wayside, as so many other working class kids with potential do. Instead, she became “a genius straight from the slums” who refused to shy away from uncomfortable and unpalatable truths, shocking Southern audiences and prompting them to ask, “is this really how people live?” Allegedly at least one critic believed it to be satire. It wasn’t so much kitchen sink drama as backseat of a car drama – filthy and funny, gritty and depressing, sexual yet hilariously unerotic, not to mention confrontational. Rita, Sue and Bob Too is full of the contradictions of poverty, a condition that to outsiders can seem two-dimensional at best. The play has a nuance that’s lacking from modern, reality TV depictions of life in benefits Britain, a country in which as far as much of the media is concerned there are scroungers and strivers and nothing in-between.
In 2017, the country is going through a period of soul-searching in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Politicians and commentators no longer see it as politically convenient to ignore communities such as Dunbar’s. The Buttershaw has seen millions of pounds of regeneration money poured into it in the wake of the play and the film’s success, but it’s doubtful that it will have been enough to reverse decades of industrial and economic decline. A revival is timely. Rita and Sue’s live’s are as real and their problems as relevant today as they ever were.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is at the Royal Court from 9 Jan. Tours until February.