Theatre preview: Joyce McMillan on the new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too coming to the Citz

Say the phrase Rita, Sue and Bob Too to anyone in Britain over 40, and they're likely to think of Alan Clarke's 1987 film, a wild working-class romp set on a Bradford housing estate in which two teenage babysitters are drawn into a back-seat sexual affair with married man Bob, who lives in a slightly posher part of town.

James Atherton (Bob), Taj Atwal (Rita), Gemma Dobson (Sue) PIC: Richard Davenport

According to Out Of Joint artistic director Kate Wasserberg, though, Clarke’s film – strong though it is on pace, wit, and the class politics of Thatcher’s Britain – brings more than a bit of a male gaze to the story, which is based on the play of the same name by the writer Andrea Dunbar, and an even earlier play called The Arbor, written when she was barely 19; the film famously ends, after all, with the classic male fantasy image of Bob and the two girls setting up a bouncy ménage-à-trois, after Bob’s wife leaves him.

When Wasserberg first read Dunbar’s script for the 1982 stage version of Rita, Sue And Bob Too, though, she was bowled over by what she calls “a much more nuanced, fierce and brutal portrait of female friendship. It’s savage, funny, and clever, and it has a much more complicated, downbeat ending about the women on the estate, and how, in the end, it’s always down to them to pick up the pieces, and carry on.”

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Dunbar was born in Bradford in 1961, and grew up on the city’s Arbor housing estate, long before concepts like sexual abuse and “grooming” became part of public debate; her own life was a tough one, and she died in 1990, aged only 29. Yet for a few brief years in the early 1980s, her searing gift for dramatic writing and razor-sharp dialogue made her one of the few young working-class women ever to enter the canon of British playwriting; and it’s perhaps a measure of how challenging her voice still is that within a few weeks of its opening in Bolton in September, the new Out Of Joint touring production of Rita, Sue And Bob Too had run into a storm of controversy.

In December, after the explosion of debate around sexual exploitation unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein affair, the Royal Court Theatre, co-producers of the show, made a snap decision to withdraw it from their programme; and then, just a few days later, reinstated it again. The Royal Court’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone (former boss of the National Theatre of Scotland), said that after extensive discussion with women in theatre, including the UK’s greatest living female playwright, Caryl Churchill, she felt Dunbar’s voice should not be silenced, and that the initial decision to withdraw the play had itself helped to create the context of questioning and debate within which it should be seen.

To add to the controversy, the production had initially been co-directed by Wasserberg and Out Of Joint’s veteran founder-director, Max Stafford-Clark, who had played a key role in developing the careers of many women playwrights including Churchill and Dunbar herself; he was the first director of Rita, Sue And Bob Too in 1982. Yet in December, two months after he retired from Out Of Joint, it was revealed that Stafford-Clark had resigned following a sexual harassment complaint from a young employee; and the production therefore found itself in the eye of the storm of debate not once, but twice.

For Wasserberg, though, the complexity of the play’s portrayal of the relationship between Rita, Sue and Bob has never included any ambiguity about the morality of the central relationship. “I took over rehearsals from Max in August,” says Wasserberg, “after I got back from the Edinburgh Fringe. And what I brought to the process was that right from the start, I always saw Rita and Sue as kids. They’re kids on the cusp of adulthood, of course; they’re 15, they’re curious, they have sexual feelings and desires. But they’re not emotionally mature. They’re not ready for the kind of full sexual relationship they get into with Bob, and it’s not something they should be asked to do.

“So I came into the rehearsal-room with that very clear idea; I felt it as an artist, as a woman, and as a mum. What’s more, they’re kids who are not getting the support they need from anyone, because they’re living in an entire community that is under terrible, back-breaking pressure, where even their parents are not coping well; and that pressure is coming all the way down through society from the Thatcher government. So I’ve tried to make the show very dynamic and fast-moving, with a soundtrack of great Eighties music; but bending and pitch-shifting it in unsettling ways, so that it isn’t just some nostalgic comfort zone.”

Wasserberg wasn’t surprised that when the show opened in London, critical responses to the play itself often reflected predictable political positions, with some minimising the importance of the power relationship between better-off Bob and two much younger girls. “What I found, though, was that although the critical reaction varied in that way, audiences have always seemed very warm, very united and very humane in their response – and that’s everywhere from Sloane Square to Bolton and Huddersfield. And I think that’s quite an achievement for a 19-year-old girl from the Arbor, almost 40 years on; to be able to bring people together in a such a divided society, to make them laugh, and to make them see, behind the laughter, the huge price these girls finally have to pay. It’s a tragedy that Andrea’s no longer with us; but I think she’d be thrilled by that. I really do.”

Rita, Sue And Bob Too is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, from 13-17 February