Estate of the Nation

By Ian Shuttleworth

There’s a lot of background to this one, so... deep breath. In September, director Max Stafford-Clark became British theatre’s somewhat less infernal equivalent of Harvey Weinstein, accused of numerous unwelcome sexual remarks and incidents over decades. He left the company he founded, Out of Joint, and the Royal Court Theatre, which he once ran, now, under Vicky Featherstone, began an admirable series of #MeToo- related activities. In December, Featherstone’s Court announced it would no longer present Out of Joint’s touring revival of Andrea Dunbar’s breakthrough 1982 play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, ‘with its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women’.

There was an outcry. It was pointed out that Stafford-Clark now had nothing to do with this show, that this interpretation of its subject matter was at best partial, and above all that a theatre which prided itself on being writer-centred was denying a voice, now of all times, to a young working-class woman who couldn’t speak for herself (Dunbar died, aged only 29, in 1990). Two days later the play was back on the schedule, and now it’s arrived. And now I’m going to look like an old pervert myself for saying that this play about two 15-year-old girls and their – conscious, deliberate – affairs with a married man isn’t about grooming and abuse, and we shouldn’t get sidetracked into thinking it is or ought to be. Yes, Dunbar gets some mileage out of Bob’s lying protests to his wife that ‘I couldn’t do a thing like that’ whilst in fact doing it on a regular basis, but she writes about this extra-marital ‘bothering’ not because it’s extraordinarily wicked but because it’s just an example of the world in which it takes place.

The characters live on the run-down Buttershaw estate in Bradford (so did Dunbar), in the economic winter of first-term Thatcherism: Sue’s family can’t afford to buy her gym kit for school, and when Bob’s work dries up so does his, er, performance. Families are at each other’s throats, not in moral conflict but because,
so to speak, there’s hardly anything to eat.

Director Kate Wasserberg stages the play unfussily, led by Taj Atwal, Gemma Dobson and James Atherton. There’s nothing on stage but four old-fashioned car seats, and a soundtrack of eerily slowed- down 1980s pop hits punctuates the action. You end up feeling sometimes that Dunbar’s writing is naive, but rather more often feeling guilty that ‘naive’ is a label you’re using to avoid having to acknowledge it as honest and direct.

Until 27 January at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, 020-7565 5000,, then Huddersfield, Mold and Glasgow.