Andrea Dunbar was an incredible woman. At the age of 17 she fled an abusive relationship, armed only with her baby and some notes, which became The Arbor. At 19 she had Rita, Sue and Bob Too. By the time she was 23, Andrea had given birth to three children, all by different fathers. Despite the success of the film, directed by Alan Clarke, and the celebrity status it brought her, she never saw a penny from it. Her life was beset by poverty, addiction, mental illness and family warring, and she did at the age of 28 from a brain haemorrhage. She wrote about what she knew, and what she knew was life on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford.
Kate Wasserberg and Out of Joint Theatre have now revived Dunbar’s play for the #MeToo era, and it seems highly relevant. Grooming, discrimination, money, relationships, power – it’s all there.
So whilst Rita, Sue and Bob Too is informed by Dunbar’s own experiences, it’s not an autobiographical play. It was also never intended to be a piece of social comment. But what she has done very well is observe some of the nuances of living life on an estate and brought them to life.
As well as questions of consent and sex, the play raises important issues around class. These young girls are so vulnerable because they live in a society that tells them they have no future, bar finding a boyfriend. They can be groomed because they have nothing else to be.
That’s what makes the classic textbook grooming of Bob (James Atherton) so apparently simple. A married man, he is pretending to drive Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) home, and starts a fling with both of them. They feel in control and flattered, but really are being used. Atwal and Dobson are bold and believable as 15 year old girls, perfectly encapsulating that desperate need to be seen as an adult whilst being innocent. What we ask of our teenagers is complex and demanding – they’re still children, yet in cases like this, we demand agency. With an unpromising future ahead of them though, what do we expect.
The writing is tough and spirited. In fact, despite dealing with complex issues, it’s really funny. The wickedly acute observation delivers startling insight and raises many questions. A fantastic production.
The play is currently on tour, including a visit to The Marlowe, Canterbury.