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Sasha Semple writes a four star review of Out of Joint’s revival of an eighties cult classic. 

Out of Joint’s revival of Andrea Dunbar’s amusing and simultaneously harrowing 1982 play fills the Bristol Old Vic with both laughter and despair on its opening night. While for much of the audience, Rita, Sue and Bob too serves as a throwback to the eighties cult film, for a younger generation the resurrected hit makes accessible a story that is in danger of otherwise becoming lost among the mullets and vibrant shell jackets of its time.

As the neon strobe lights fade and the sound of ‘Tainted Love’ ingeniously transitions from dance floor to car radio, the first scene reveals three characters centre stage. Clever use of the car’s rear-view mirror allows the audience access to the conversation between two young female passengers and their significantly older, male driver.

Within minutes the audience has its own rear view, as James Atherton’s naked bottom is exposed in a haphazard and bemusing sex scene, provoking a similar reaction to that of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho revival earlier this year. The backseat fornication lasts exactly one minute- it is during this rigorous and prolonged thrusting that the audience seems to experience a range of emotions. Initial gasps of shock quickly diffuse into laughter and finally dwindle into murmurs of disgust, in a cyclical self-questioning that will persist throughout the production.

‘the audience has its own rear view, as James Atherton’s naked bottom is exposed in a haphazard and bemusing sex scene’

The two underage girls are revealed as Rita (emotionally portrayed by Taj Atawal) and newcomer Gemma Dobson’s enthusiastic Sue- both are involved in an affair with the car’s driver, 27-year-old Bob. Although James Atherton brings energy to his challenging character, the part of Bob has room for greater exploration and, in line with the play’s title, the female leads undoubtedly dominate the show.

Dunbar’s narrative explores the nature of an exploitative relationship alongside Bob’s own failing marriage. The sporadic bursts of disco lights contrast against the banal, beige backdrop and bleak, hopeless society in which the girls’ teenage dreams are falling apart. Yet the play is not wholly depressing. Clichéd musical transitions keep the pace moving and the comedic interactions between the characters leave the audience laughing for the best part of 75 minutes.

However, it’s in the crucial moments of silence that the underlying, dismal truth of the piece distresses the viewer.  The play’s climax, as Bob fails to climax, exposes Thatcher’s broken Britain and the tragic reality of despondent working-class life; a raw display of abject unemployment and broken relationships. Whilst the bombardment of nostalgia became a little grating, there were points, namely when Bob states ‘that’s what you get for having a female Prime Minister’, that evoke a contemporary relevance to the show.

It is particularly telling to compare the audience’s reactions as we are launched into the manipulative and illicit love triangle of Rita, Sue and Bob. As a product of an intolerant, safeguarded generation, I initially found it difficult to relax and let myself laugh at Bob revealing his Y-Fronts in front of two minors.

‘it’s in the crucial moments of silence that the underlying, dismal truth of the piece distresses the viewer’

In light of recent events concerning child exploitation, it is understandable that directors Stafford-Clark and Wasserberg placed greater emphasis on emulating the playfulness of the era rather than overloading us with the depressing reality. However, from the perspective of a younger viewer, it would have been interesting to explore deeper the modern day impact of this previously, poignant play.

A carefully crafted and wonderfully acted production, audiences will leave Rita, Sue and Bob too not only haunted by the relentless eighties soundtrack, but also interrogating the play’s thought-provoking themes. Most notably, this piece poses the question of whether Dunbar would recognise any change in today’s Britain, 30 years on from the show’s initial conception.

★★★★

Rita, Sue and Bob too is on at Bristol Old Vic until 7th October. Tickets available here.


What do you think about Out of Joint’s production- depressing and overly nostalgic or hilarious and insightful? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or catch us on social media.

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