‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ at the Royal Court
Her career began with a school drama project: words scrawled in green biro across the pages of an exercise book. In 1980, Andrea Dunbar, a pregnant teenager living in a refuge for ‘battered women’, entered a play she had written when she was 15 into a national writing competition organised by the Royal Court. Max Stafford-Clark, who had just joined the theatre as artistic director, asked her to send more, and together they put The Arbor on stage. The play was named after the street on which Dunbar grew up, on a rundown council estate in Bradford.
Shelagh Delaney recognised in Dunbar a fellow ‘genius straight from the slums’. Rita, Sue and Bob Too followed two years later – also produced under Stafford-Clark’s supervision. By this point, Dunbar was 21, with two children to support. Stafford-Clark was 41, and from another world. ‘They all seem to think I should go down to London and be a bit of a prat,’ Dunbar said in an interview at the time. ‘I don't mind visiting, but I don't like living there.’ She lived on the Buttershaw estate until her death in December 1990.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is about two schoolgirls who end up in a sexual relationship with an older, married man they are babysitting for. Rooted in Dunbar’s own experiences, the play was lauded for its frank, gritty realness. It shone an unsentimental light on working-class lives rarely seen in the theatre. Audiences and critics celebrated the directness of the writing. They also found it funny. ‘It weren’t so funny when it were happening,’ Dunbar reportedly muttered during one rehearsal.
Dunbar’s modest fame (and notoriety) peaked when Alan Clarke made Rita, Sue and Bob Too into a film in 1987. The film works even harder at playing the script for laughs. Dunbar was furious. She went on to write only one more work (Shirley) before collapsing in her local pub and dying of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29. She left behind three children and a couple of plastic bags’ worth of unfinished work.
Out of Joint, founded by Stafford-Clark and Sonia Friedman in 1993, revived Rita, Sue and Bob Too in 2000. Clio Barnard’s film The Arbor – a version not of Dunbar’s play but of her life story, constructed from interviews with people who knew her – came out in 2010. And then this year there was a flurry of renewed interest: Clarke’s film was re-released on DVD; Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, a novel based on Dunbar’s life, was published; and tickets went on sale at the Royal Court for a new Out of Joint touring production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (‘the vivid, hilarious 80s classic’).
Then last week the theatre announced it was cancelling the play:
On our stage we recently heard 150 stories of sexual harassment and abuse and therefore the staging of this work, with its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women, on that same stage now feels highly conflictual.
The decision followed the news that Stafford-Clark had been sacked from Out of Joint over allegations of sexual harassment, and a Day of Action organised by the Royal Court’s current director, Vicky Featherstone, in response to the Weinstein scandal.
Dunbar’s fans protested. ‘Dunbar would possibly not be surprised that as a direct result of the misbehaviour of a man, her play will no longer be staged,’ David Barnett wrote in the Guardian. A couple of days later, the Royal Court reversed its decision. Featherstone explained that she had been ‘rocked to the core by accusations of censorship and the banning of a working-class female voice … As a result of this helpful public debate we are now confident that the context with which Andrea Dunbar’s play will be viewed will be an invitation for new conversations.’
Why was it only last week that the ‘themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women’ in Dunbar’s play were noticed, or found to be problematic? Partly because of the post-Saville, post-Weinstein cultural climate. But would it have taken us so long to see the abuse, if Rita and Sue weren’t working-class? Would we have laughed so hard at their story? Perhaps it never was as funny as middle-class audiences liked to think.