Thursday, 12 October 2017

Rita, Sue and Bob Too @ Liverpool Playhouse, 11/10/17

Anyone who follows me on Letterboxd will know that I have a long and deeply held love for Alan Clarke's Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Based on the 1982 play written by Andrea Dunbar, it's an affection that I seem to share with much of the north in general, given that there are many productions staged in the region on a regular basis. However, as I have previously blogged about, you must approach some of these productions with extreme caution (the most recent production pf Rita, Sue and Bob Too staged here in St Helens starred none other than Darren Day for God's sake!) as many of them seem to exist as adult panto full of has-beens and never-have-beens, rather than the faithful, intelligent adaptation Dunbar's piece truly deserves.

There's no such concern with the latest revival from the theatre company Out of Joint which arrived, as part of its nationwide tour, at the Liverpool Playhouse this week. For a start, that's because the play's original director Max Stafford-Clark is directing once more, alongside Kate Wasserberg, following a December 2015 workshop at the National Theatre. This newly edited production makes a lively piece even livelier; for a start, to highlight the early '80s setting, the play skilfully uses popular hits of the day (the likes of Soft Cell's Tainted Love, Culture Club's Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, The Human League's Don't You Want Me Baby?, Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight and, naturally of course given Bob's seductive technique, Cars by Gary Numan) as a way of moving from scene to scene, allowing the cast to alter the set up of stage whilst dancing, miming or singing along.

And what a cast it is! Hats off to casting director Amy Ball who has cannily sourced some excellent young talent to bring Dunbar's characters to life. No prizes for guessing that the Kay Mellow BBC1 drama In The Club featured heavily in her casting process as the production secured the talents of two stars from there, Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson, to play Rita and Sue respectively. Both girls are impressive and authentic; Dobson's Sue is blonde, bonny and blousy, characteristics that easily bring to mind Michelle Holmes' portrayal in Clarke's film, whilst still having enough individuality in the performance to separate it in your mind. Atwal however is the real star of the show, reflecting Dunbar's original naive hopefulness to ensure the part of Rita truly is her own.

Starring as Bob is James Atherton, whose TV credits include stints on both Hollyoaks and Coronation Street, as well as an appearance in the recent film adaptation of Macbeth and in the recent Dave sitcom Porters, alongside Rutger Hauer. Like Dobson, Atherton also reminds you of George Costigan's star turn in Clarke's film, thanks to a similar, twinkly bug-eyed physicality, but his Bob is more in keeping with Dunbar's original interpretation; seemingly younger, and more obviously working class (as opposed to the lower middle class of Clarke's film) in his choice of clothes. I was 'blessed' to have a dead centre front row seat for this performance, which meant that I became all too familiar with Mr Atherton's bare backside and his modesty-pouched ballsack during the sex scenes! The nudity certainly took some in the audience by surprise!

Samantha Robinson stars as Bob's wife Michelle, whilst Sally Bankes and David Walker appear as Sue's mother and father respectively, rounding out a very impressive cast indeed. The play concludes as Dunbar originally wrote it - anyone expecting to see the same mish-mash of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Dunbar's other play The Arbor, as per Clarke's film - will be disappointed. The final scene once again features Michelle and Sue's mum lamenting the disappointments they have had to face in life thanks to the men they had chosen to live with. As someone who experienced the film long before the play, I have always felt this an odd way to end the story as it essentially gives the spotlight over to two secondary characters in a somewhat too little, too late fashion. However, watching it last night it finally clicked; these two women are essentially the futures Rita and Sue have to look forward too. It's easy to see that Sue will become her mother, and it's equally (though tragically) easy to consider that despite getting her man, Bob will once again wander and play away from Rita. 

This revival differs from the last staging by Out of Joint in 2000. That production saw the inclusion of Rita's brother Sam, meaning a longer scene three and the necessity to rejig some of the dialogue from there to occur later in the production in a very good scene that sees Rita and Sue on YTS, which just happens to be where Michelle works too. Michelle is doing some extra work on the side as an Avon rep and Rita orders some scent from her, which leads into a very good climax to a later scene when a suspicious Michelle plays her ace card and warns Bob off from playing around with Rita and Sue because "I know what that scent smells like" - cue In The Air Tonight in a very satisfying manner, with the lights flicking on and off in set designer Tim Shortall's two tower blocks in time with Collins' drumwork!

There are some scenes which you'd swear where changed to add a contemporary resonance too. On returning home I checked my script book of Dunbar's original to make sure that lines such as Bob's about the danger of London compared to the North "there's too many things happening down there that you don't see up here" wasn't added to reflect the naive mindset that existed before this year's tragic Manchester Arena bombing that believed anywhere north of Watford was unlikely be targeted by Islamic terrorists, but it wasn't; it was there all along. Likewise, Bob's comment of "that's what you get when you have a woman prime minister in parliament" was always a part of his Thatcher/unemployment grumble and was not specifically beefed up to imply Theresa May for today's audience. In short, the truth that Dunbar wrote in 1982 is just as relevant now. 

I really cannot praise Out of Joint's revival enough. It is not only one of the funniest plays, but it also has to be one of the best staged plays I have seen in some time and, at just one hour twenty minutes (and with no interval) it licks along most agreeably and with great energy, whilst never outstaying its welcome. Praise too for Jason Tyler's lighting and Tim Shortall's costume design, alongside his responsibilities for the sparse but excellent set; a series of chairs and a backdrop of Yorkshire between two monolithic tower blocks really does create a believable world and affords the audience a journey back in time too. 

Rita, Sue and Bob Too stays at the Playhouse until Saturday and, when I checked earlier, there are still seats for each of the remaining productions, including some front row ones (for anyone who wants an up close look of Atherton's arse!) From there it moves on across the country taking in Warwick, Oxford, Northampton, Doncaster, York, Derby, London, Huddersfield and lastly, Mold, at the start of February next year. It really is well worth catching, providing you're not someone easily offended by language or nudity that is.

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