I went to the Royal Court to see my all time favourite, Rita Sue and Bob too. I say my favourite because I grew up watching the film. It was a Bradfordian kid’s rite of passage. It was something you grew up hearing about as a bairn in passing, you know, like Blue Lagoon and 9 ½ weeks? You knew, as soon as it hit the box again, you would be glued to that screen to see what all the fuss was about.
The fuss was; it was a naughty film. The closest thing to a ‘blue’ movie you were ever going to witness at that age (no internet or smart phones then pal). Not only was it a bit ‘blue’, they said “fuck” and “fucking” and “piss off”!!! You have to remember this was the late 80’s, early 90’s. Nobody said “fuck” on TV!
The reason it was our rite of passage: it was written by a Bradford teenager, who once lived 2 minutes from my house and the entire thing was set in our wonderful city, our very own, lovely, rotten swamp pit; Bradford. You know I always say Bradford is a shit hole, but it’s OUR shit hole and we can denigrate the place but, we will not stand for any disrespect from ANY other corner of the earth.
To watch Rita, Sue and Bob too, is to understand how many of us grew up in Bradford. Not just the plot or themes but the essence. This is our world. Because our city is most known for awful things, Rita, Sue and Bob too, was our stamp on the world. It was our best claim to fame and Andrea was our hero but, little did we realise, as curious kids, this was to be Yorkshire first high profile grooming scandal.
Rita Sue and Bob too, was always banded about as a comedy and anyone who’s ever seen the film will know it’s a right fucking laugh. Yorkshire people are funny as fuck mate but; 80’s Yorkshire people! Haaa! Quiffs and hairspray heaven!
However, there’s something that I think most of us Bradfordian’s feel about Andrea’s work and that is, her work is consumed in a salacious way, you know, like poverty porn. We in Bradford heard the uncomfortable stories of how Max S Clark got her to write. We heard how she felt about certain elements being unauthentic when the film was made, (the film was fused with elements of her other plays and the ending was zhuzhed up for screen). Andrea wasn’t sold by the final scene at all. As with all things artistic, it was harrowingly conceived, painfully carved out, vacuum packed and gorged on by the masses. Everybody wanted a piece of this rough for leisure time titillation but, this was her life. Not necessarily a complete autobiography but, still truthful elements of her actual experience.
Andrea Dunbar’s work was and is still precocious. She was a child who, by all intentions, should have never left Buttershaw estate and never become an icon. She didn’t go to RADA or Oxford but she had something that can’t be taught. She was a working class kid, from one of the ‘shittiest’ estates in Bradford but she was no idiot, she was a star.
Her stories are not special or unique. What she put on paper is simply a way of life for a majority of working class people in Bradford, both then and now. The irony of Thatcher and her Tory Government being so poignant in a teenager’s play; just another thing for rich people to laugh at but, what’s changed? When I say ‘rich’ I mean anyone earning over £25k a year. You can see for yourself how this ‘coalition of chaos’ funds northern counties even now and although we have some extremely wealthy cities in Yorkshire, Gods own country and the UK’s biggest county; Bradford is the land that time and Tories forgot. No, it wasn’t what Andrea said, it was the way she said it that made her special then and special now and we adore and idolise her because she was the one that got out… almost.
You see when we Bradfordian’s laugh at Rita, Sue and Bob too, we laugh at the nuances that y’all don’t get; the significance and gravitas of “Manningham lane”. We laugh at the flat A’s in bath and grass because it’s a massive ‘fuck you’ to everyone who ever told us we don’t speak properly and that our home is a dump. But ‘they’ (the middle class, liberal theatre elite) don’t laugh for those reasons and I felt deep, shameful pang again this evening. I hadn’t realised tonight was press night but, it now makes sense why the audience was a sea of middle class grey.
My two friends played a blinding Rita & Sue, nevertheless seeing the stage version as an adult, after watching the film religiously as a kid reinforced something in my mind. Rita and Sue, neither in the film, nor in this production are played by 15 year olds. Normally in theatre it doesn’t matter, trust me, I’m as old as Nosferatu and still play kids on stage. However, there’s something about showing the grooming of young girls that is lost when the audience is able to unconsciously justify the victims being older in their mind. Rita and Sue have always looked 18/19. They were 15. Born in Bradford or not; ready to face any adversity or not; dragged up on Buttershaw or not. They were 15. Bob was (according to him) 27.
George Costigan, the absolute diamond, played Bob in the film. With the formidable Michelle Holmes and Siobhan Finneran playing Sue and Rita; they were 20 and 21 respectively. The Royal Court’s Rita and Sue are of a similar age (I won’t snitch on my mates). Rita and Sue have always looked older than 15. 15 is a very specific age in a young girl’s development. Their nose is always too big for their face, their body is still developing or over-developed for their size, there’s the shiny glow of hormonal skin, (no? Just me then), but you can still tell they are a child. This factor is important in the telling of Rita, Sue and Bob too. George Costigan, being the dynamo that he is, was so charming in the film, we the audience adored him, which is part of the problem with men that like young girls, or, as we commonly know them now – predators. As a kid, I missed all of this but young Andrea was astute enough to know and convey that like Rita and Sue, Bob was a forlorn Bradfordian, looking for things he lacked in the wrong place.
The overall production was great, I really enjoyed what they did with it, however I still think we are missing a huge plot hole. Something is still missing from the direction of Rita Sue and Bob too productions. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. I still feel the direction is playing for laughs. I still feel the middle class theatre/screen elite are laughing at us rather than with us. I still want to see a version that really grabs what this play is truly about; a 30 year old man grooming underage girls. I still feel like we are missing Andrea’s message.
In her own words
“It weren’t so funny when it were happening”.