Rita, Sue and #MeToo: 'there'd be outrage if it was written today'

Was the Royal Court right to put on Rita, Sue and Bob Too? We asked three playwrights to look afresh at Andrea Dunbar’s story of two girls preyed on by an older man

‘There’d be outrage if it was written today’ … from left, Gemma Dobson (Sue), James Atherton (Bob) and Taj Atwal (Rita) at the Royal Court theatre, London.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Ella Carmen Greenhill (Coronation Street, Plastic Figurines)

Ella Carmen Greenhill

Ella Carmen Greenhill

I was shocked when the Royal Court cancelled Rita, Sue and Bob Too. I know they had their day of action against sexual misconduct, which saw 150 accounts of harassment read out on stage, but this play has strong female characters, it’s written by a woman and directed by a woman. So they were right to reinstate it: we need to see Andrea Dunbar’s play in the #MeToo era.

Kate Wasserberg’s production opens with a backdrop of Bradford, made to look slightly magical. You hear 80s music and think you’re going to have a laugh. Bob is driving the babysitters home and it’s clear they’re just kids. He’s got a plan – he’s bought condoms – and as soon as he asks if they are virgins, you want to scream: “Get out of that car!” So I was surprised by the audience laughing as Bob has sex with them. I mean, a bum is funny, we’ll all laugh at a bum – but then the house lights gradually come up, putting the audience on the spot, asking us how comfortable we feel watching this.

There’d be outrage if it was written today: a story about a paedophile told with light-hearted comedy. The portrayal of Bob is quite complex. He’s not a monster – that would leave you thinking you’re OK as you don’t know men like that. Instead, he’s presented as this nice bloke who has given the girls a lift.

Later, he cries when he tells them he has to sell his car because he’s got no work. His masculinity is threatened by unemployment. “There’s no hope for kids today and it’s all Maggie Thatcher’s fault,” he says. “She’s for the rich people, not the poor.” Change the name of the prime minister and put on different background music and it could be today.

Dunbar still stands out as a young female working-class playwright. Why aren’t there more coming through today? Look at who is going to the theatre. You don’t think of writing a play if you haven’t been to the theatre yourself – and it’s difficult to feel like you belong there if you’re from a certain kind of background. It’s about entitlement – if you have the freedom to do whatever you want, then maybe you’ll write that first play.

But if you’re from Rita and Sue’s world, I don’t know whether you’d think that anything you had to say was worth hearing – although of course it is, as Dunbar showed. I’m from Radford, a deprived area close to the centre of Nottingham. I don’t think there are many other playwrights who have come out of Radford. I feel the experiences I have from growing up there are an essential part of me as a writer.

The play’s ending is bittersweet. Sue should be hurt by the fact that Rita has had a baby with Bob and lives with him. But you feel like the two girls are still loyal to each other even though they haven’t met up for ages. And then you find out that Rita has called her baby Sue, which is so beautiful. Really, it’s a love story between Rita and Sue.

Gemma Dobson, David Walker (Dad), Taj Atwal and Sally Bankes (Mum) in Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

Gemma Dobson, David Walker (Dad), Taj Atwal and Sally Bankes (Mum) in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Atiha Sen Gupta (What Fatima Did, Counting Stars)

Atiha Sen Gupta

Atiha Sen Gupta. Photograph: Rex

That title, with its jaunty rhythm, suggests a light-hearted love triangle, and when the play was staged by Max Stafford-Clark in 1982 it was received as a tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy. But, while the text is the same, times have changed: this is a tale of grooming, underage sex and “slut-shaming”.

I found the opening excruciating: 27-year-old Bob (complete with dodgy mullet) shows giggly 15-year-olds Rita and Sue how to put on a condom. The scene is realised very literally: schoolgirl socks up, Y-fronts down. Yes, the girls are as keen for “a jump” as Bob is, seduced by an older man with his own car. But are they fully able to consent? Would the audience laugh so loudly if they were 14?

The play still speaks to us today, in the era of Rotherham and Weinstein. When it was cancelled at the Royal Court, in the wake of harassment allegations against Stafford-Clark and others in the entertainment industry, much was made of the “authenticity” of Dunbar as a working-class, northern, female voice. But, while Rita and Sue are certainly dynamic, rounded characters, the others are crudely drawn. Sue’s dad is a swearing, violent grump, all one-note in his rage. If a playwright from the so-called liberal metropolitan elite sketched such a character, it would rightly be dismissed as inauthentic.

In this revival, Rita is Asian – which makes sense, given the play is set in Bradford. It’s also a subtle nod to the underreported fact that Asian girls, as well as their white counterparts, are subject to sexual exploitation by adult men. When Rita, Sue and Bob’s secret is found out, Dunbar captures brilliantly double standards that are still in currency. Rita and Sue are denounced as “schoolgirl sluts” by Bob’s wife, Michelle, who defends him: “If it’s put there on a plate, he’s gonna take it isn’t he? He wouldn’t be much of a man if he didn’t.”

Dunbar once remarked: “You write what’s said, you don’t lie.” This semi-autobiographical play observes its characters rather than judges them. Most modern plays have a moral code built in. But I think Dunbar lets Bob off the hook at the end.

Samantha Robinson (Michelle) and James Atherton in Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

Samantha Robinson (Michelle) and James Atherton in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

April De Angelis (Jumpy, My Brilliant Friend)

April De Angelis

April De Angelis. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

I remember what it was like as a teenager – becoming a sexual being but feeling disorientated, having no real information about my body. You get a sense of that alienation in the opening scene and, gradually, you realise Sue probably isn’t a virgin but maybe Rita is. You don’t know if they’re pretending or what is bravado. They’re not really owning their virginity so they’re not owning their sexuality in a way.

The writer Dunbar reminds me of is Caryl Churchill, particularly her unsentimental portrayal of working-class women. Women are very good at talking but often their speech isn’t given gravitas. It’s seen as gossip or discredited.

Dunbar’s women are challenging because they’re not easily likable but very direct. They have all the witty lines – like when Bob complains to Michelle about their sex life and says: “I don’t get nowt off you.” She replies: “Well, what do you fucking want? Jam on it?” That brought the house down.

Bob is the focal point for all the female characters. It’s so sad when Rita and Sue argue over who is going to have sex first. You think: “Is that all they aspire to?” But they challenge him as well: he gets slapped in the face with a condom and the girls decide to change the order. They are in control in that scene, not him, and it results in him losing his erection. It’s all about who has the power.

Why are there two girls instead of one? Two makes it funnier but also presents Rita and Sue as a class of young women in Thatcher’s Britain rather than individuals. And it gives the possibility of solidarity. That chimes with what #MeToo is about. When I was a young woman, there was a thing in the feminist movement where if someone grabbed you inappropriately, you called them out. I did this at a train station and a woman I didn’t know joined in with me. The play explores the strength of women speaking together.

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