Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Royal Court, London
King’s Head Theatre, London
Modern classics are one of the joys of British theatre. And, to judge also from the new 60th anniversary version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party in the West End, offer some of the best performances on the London stage. But, with Brexit on our minds, do revivals of vivid work about working-class life from the 1970s and 1980s tell us anything about how the country has changed – or not – in the intervening years?
Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 debut Rita, Sue and Bob Too is set on a Bradford council estate. Rita and Sue are two 15-year-old babysitters who have sex with the married 27-year-old builder, Bob, who complains that his wife, Michelle, is sexually unresponsive. The opening scene, which in Kate Wasserberg’s excellent revival is played with the houselights on, shows Bob having sex with the two underage teens in his car. While the girls are full of bravado, they are also ignorant: he shows them how to put on a condom, and then they take turns to do the business. But although he thinks they are virgins, they are more experienced than they let on. It’s typical of Dunbar’s writing that the scene is not only excruciatingly explicit, but also that the females know more than the men realize.
Sharply observed and full of teenage boasting, the play is also an indictment of ignorance and poverty. In this version, Dunbar’s down-to-earth view of sex, crude but with a sharp tang of young wisdom (she was 19 when she wrote it) is much less appalling than the picture the play paints of Sue’s family life, with her mother and her violent drunk of a father swearing at each other. In Sue’s view, her Dad is “a bit of a cunt”. By contrast, Bob comes across as much more complex, with the scene about erectile dysfunction showing a more human side to this incurable philanderer. Despite his capacity for aggression, there are also some small instances of tenderness.
With a mix of despair and hilarity, Dunbar gives us a 10-scene tour around her homeland, the impoverished Britain of the Margaret Thatcher years. As a guide, she’s full of salty folk wisdom and straight talk: the only moments that strike a false note are brief passages about social issues (Thatcherism; unemployment) that seem to be directed more towards a middle-class audience than the more larky moments. The main theme is teen female friendship, which is by turns jokey, embracing solidarity and accepting competition over men, and occasionally vicious. Dunbar gives an invigoratingly clear picture of how women and girls behave towards each other. And one which doesn’t shirk their cruelty.
Politically, this semi-autobiographical story has a wider resonance: in the past, poor working-class communities could protect their young women with a strict moral code based on religion. By the 1980s, the decline of deference and a combination of increasing secularisation and the ideology of individual freedom and market forces meant that 1960s’ sexual liberation resulted more exploitation of vulnerable women. Dunbar understood this instinctively. Her women are feisty survivors; her men are selfish exploiters.
Wasserberg’s superb production has nuanced performances from each of the cast members, and her orchestration of the emotional cross-currents in, most notably, the sandwich-eating scene is excellent. Television’s James Atherton is on fine form as the amoral Bob, and Gemma Dobson (Sue), Samantha Robinson (Michelle), Sally Bankes (Mum) and David Walker (Dad) are all convincing. Casting Taj Atwal as Rita gives a racial tinge to the character’s final downfall. Tim Shortall’s bare set allows scenes to flow into each other so the show’s 80 minutes rush by. An unadulterated triumph.
If Dunbar, who died aged 29 from a brain tumour, was a puckish sprite, Steven Berkoff is one of the savage gods of British theatre, a creator of a distinctive linguistic style and a thrilling physicality of performance. In the 1970s, his work galvanised fringe theatre before helping to change the mainstream. It gave staid naturalism and flabby social realism a much-needed shot in the arm, and kick in the balls. His sinewy and beautifully exaggerated entertainments punch you in the face and then tickle you between the toes. His 1975 play, East, is a classic account of life in the East End of London before the great exodus of working-class families in the 1970s.
Stomping down Commercial Road come Mike and Les, two working-class bully boys and best mates obsessed with girls and fighting. If they’re not chasing skirt, they’re getting into a scrap. Although the drama is ostensibly the story of Mike, Les and Sylv – a love triangle that explodes in violence – the play is actually a series of vignettes: Mike and Les’s fight over Sylv; Mum and Dad having tea at home; Mike’s meeting with Sylv; Les’s job in a men’s wear shop; Les’s infatuation with a stunner he sees on the bus; Mike’s motorbike ride; Mum’s complaints about her husband; Mike’s “cunt speech” and Sylv’s “speech of resolution”.
In the scene changes, Berkoff specifies some quick bits of mime, a silent film sequence for example, or a scene set in an office. Throughout there are snatches of traditional Cockney tunes, from “My Old Man Says Follow the Van” to “If You Were the Only Girl in the World”. Written with great dollops of cod-Shakespearean wit, East is a garish trip through urban poverty where life is lived in a series of burps, farts and fucks. A lot of the humour comes from the clash between the mock-heroic text and the ghastly realities of sexism and deprivation, vicious violence and right-wing fantasies. Whenever the piece sways in the direction of nostalgia, Berkoff throws in a bucketful of ugliness.
Dad is a racist bigot who remembers Oswald Mosley with fondness and whose account of the Battle of Cable Street links its violence with that of his kids. Mum is a sad and wasted figure whose story about groping a young man in the local fleapit turns into a horrific realisation. Rushing through vivid and lurid episodes like a cartoon, the play lulls you with Dad’s conviction that “Years ago things were good”, before battering you with hilarious and gross accounts of what we are meant to recognise as traditional working-class life.
Today, the most moving moments are not the tales of male bravado or moments of masculine loneliness, but Sylv’s longing speech and Mum’s lament. The women have a perceptiveness and realism that has not aged, and their speeches are fresh and to the point. If there is a shred of hope in the play, it is articulated by its angry women. As for the men, they are yet another reminder that the white working class has always included an appalling number of rough racists and thugs. In Brexit Britain, their despair and fury have acquired a new significance.
Originally opening at the 1975 Edinburgh Festival, before coming to this pub theatre in London, East is a visceral, experiential and in-yer-face classic. This revival by Jessica Lazar is designed by Anna Lewis and shows the play has lost none of its rage and rollocking power. The cast is led by James Craze and Jack Condon’s fearsome Mike and Les, with Boadicea Ricketts as a slinky Sylv, and Debra Penny as Mum and Russell Barnett as Dad. Lazar follows Berkoff’s text closely and her production is highly impactful, if sometimes a bit too exaggerated and messy. Berkoff’s world is wild and ludicrous, his sense of theatre superb, but East is more comic book than political tract.
In Brexit Britain, both these plays seem prophetic: each seems to announce the fact that an ignored and deprived white working class would one day give Westminster a punch in the eye. And, during the 2016 referendum, that is exactly what they did.