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Theatre Review Laughing at, not with, the working class

LYNNE WALSH is left uneasy at the audience response to Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Royal Court, London/Touring

CO-PRODUCED by Out of Joint, Bolton Octagon and the Royal Court, this production, controversially cancelled and then reinstated by the London theatre, is an insubstantial version of  Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

It’s tough to say that, especially given the acclaim which greeted the teenage Andrea Dunbar’s work. First performed in 1982 and made into a successful film soon afterwards, the play is semi-autobiographical. Dunbar’s life was bleak and she was dead at 29 after time in a women’s refuge and escalating problems with alcohol.

Her depiction of 15-year-old friends and their fling with a morosely married man won plaudits and the media loved Dunbar for a while.

There are truisms in her play — life under Thatcher was grim for many, especially those in precarious work and Bob (James Atherton) fears that his loss of income will also lose him his wife, children and house.

In fact, it’s the loss of his erection that’s a plot pivot and it’s played for laughs, as is most of the text, but Atherton does show some of the fragility that we sense underlies the cocky demeanour.

It’s hard to say how the loss of its co-director Max Stafford-Clark for alleged “lewd comments” to Out of Joint staff has affected this production — the performances are somewhat declamatory and a little more intimacy between the players might have elicited some melancholy.

Gemma Dobson as Sue has presence and there are very decent performances from Taj Atwal as Rita, Samantha Robinson as betrayed wife Michelle and Sally Bankes as Sue’s comic battleaxe mother. Yet the final showdown, a full-on shrieking match, descends into caricature.

After the run at the Royal Court, the play goes to Huddersfield, Mold and Glasgow. Perhaps there, audiences will respond empathetically because, while it would be unfair to say that the Sloane Square audience meant to mock, there was the discomforting feeling that theatregoers were laughing at the working class, not with them.

Runs until January 27, box office: royalcourttheatre.com and then tours until February 17, details: outofjoint.co.uk

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