When Adelle Stripe and Kate Wasserberg talk about Andrea Dunbar, they do so in the first person, as if they were mates. This is the case even though neither of them ever met the writer of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Dunbar’s celebrated tragi-comic frontline snapshot of survival strategies in 1980s Thatcher’s Britain. Such empathy speaks volumes about the lingering power of Dunbar’s writing before she tragically died in 1990 aged just 29.
Stripe’s forensic fan-girl turned academic dedication to Dunbar resulted in Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile, a brilliant fictionalised account of Dunbar’s short but turbulent life on the broken-down Bradford estate where she lived and died. Wasserberg, meanwhile, has directed the current revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too which arrives in Glasgow tonight as part of a tour co-produced by Out of Joint theatre company with the Royal Court Theatre in London and Bolton Octagon.
Both Stripe and Wasserberg took part in a recent event at the Royal Court Theatre alongside film maker Clio Barnard, director of The Arbor, an impressionistic documentary about Dunbar. For both the show and the event to take place on the same stage where Rita, Sue and Bob Too first burst into messy life three and a half decades previously was a symbolic show of strength on several counts.
“Just being onstage at the Royal Court was really strange,” says Stripe. “It was the first time I’d seen the play, and after four years doing the book, I really wanted to see Andrea’s work done how it should be done to mark what for me had been quite a long journey.”
For Wasserberg too, it was an emotional occasion.
“It was really amazing,” she says. “After all the uncertainty around everything that had happened, as soon as you put the play on that stage, it became about Andrea, and about taking her play home.”
The uncertainty Wasserberg mentions is in part to do with the decision by Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone to cancel the show’s scheduled dates at the theatre that launched Dunbar, before reinstating them two days later. The first decision came on the back of No Grey Area, a Royal Court hosted event in which victims of abuses of power in the theatre industry were given voice to tell their stories. This was prompted in part by the similarly inclined #MeToo campaign, which in turn was a result of recent allegations of inappropriate behaviour against several high profile names in the arts and entertainment industry.
It had also come to light that Out of Joint co-founder and then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark had been asked to stand down from his post earlier in the year following allegations against him. Stafford-Clark had commissioned and directed the original production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too during his tenure running the Royal Court. He had already overseen Dunbar’s first play, The Arbor, written when she was fifteen. Without Stafford-Clark as her champion, Rita, Sue and Bob Too’s unflinching and desperately funny depiction of a pair of potty-mouthed teenage baby-sitters who are effectively groomed by the local lothario they work for might arguably have never seen the light of day.
Dunbar’s characters remain best known to many from Alan Clarke’s 1987 film, released five years after the play first caused a sensation at the Royal Court. Fifteen years after Out of Joint last toured the play, Dunbar’s more discomforting original may now be a period piece, but it remains alive with a rawness rarely seen on a British stage.
“The film’s funny, but the play is more cutting,” says Stripe. It’s about the strength of the friendship between these two girls in the way that all of Andrea’s work was about friendship, so when you see t performed onstage there’s a real poignancy to it.”
For Wasserberg too, “It’s a love affair between Rita and Sue. The friends you have when you’re 15 or 16, they form part of who you are, and you carry them with you. That’s what the play’s about, the last days of that, and Andrea captured these people on the edge of childhood brilliantly. They’re playing at being women, but they’re still kids, and occasionally you see the mask slip. They’re really good at pretending to be grown-ups, but they’re not. Teenagers always say they’re grown-ups, but it’s our job to know they’re not. That’s Bob’s crime, because he doesn’t do that.
“It’s like what happened in Rotherham when all those young girls were groomed. The right wing press said that because they were poor, they smoke and they swear, that somehow they’re grown up, but they’re not. The play is so much more brutal than the film. What Andrea wrote was much more complex, and acknowledged the subtleties of it and the societal boredom that fed into it.”
Given Dunbar’s background of poverty, domestic abuse and life on the breadline at a time when Margaret Thatcher was claiming there was no such thing as society, that she managed to produce three plays in her lifetime at all was a remarkable achievement. As the class divide has widened and working class voices become increasingly marginalised, the need to unearth talents such as Dunbar has become increasingly vital.
“Andrea is the absolute guiding principal of Out of Joint’s commitment to developing new writers,” says Wasserberg. “It’s about trying to reach writers who wouldn’t normally be exposed to the opportunity to have a play put on, and trying to find out what barriers there are for working class writers.”
Stripe goes further.
“In 2018, people are still saying where are these voices,” she says. “We were asked at the Royal Court event where the equivalent of Andrea is now, but I’m not even sure if someone who’s around now from the same background as her would even be writing drama. I think she’d be arguing on Facebook, filming stuff on her phone and loading it onto YouTube.”
Both Stripe and Wasserberg agree that Dunbar was a major talent.
“When Andrea died, we were absolutely robbed of an amazing voice,” says Wasserberg. “If she was around now I think she’d be writing across other forms as well as theatre, and I think she’d be one of our leading lights. What amazes me about Andrea’s writing is the craft. You can see the expert structuring there. Maybe some of her writing was instinctive, but there’s a tendency with working class female writers in particular to say, oh it just poured out of them, and that’s really patronising. The Daily Mail called Andrea a genius from the slums, but you never see them writing about a genius from the suburbs.
“There was real intellect and talent with Andrea, and it feels like that play’s been built like a machine. She was only 19, so of course some of it’s raw, but bloody hell, if she was around now she’d be a major writer.”
Despite the recent off-stage dramas surrounding Out of Joint’s production, at the heart of Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a form of liberation.
“It is a period piece,” says Stripe, “but Andrea shows us these young women who aren’t victims, even though Bob’s been grooming them. They’re not virgins, but he’s a loser. The girls have got nothing, and this attention from this older man gives them a reason to be alive, even though for them it’s just a cheap thrill.
“In these post-Savile times you think, hang on, that’s a bit dodgy, but this happened to Andrea. She had no political agenda. She just wrote what she saw and didn’t worry about the consequences. If she was around now looking back she might have something to say about it, but she was a teenager, and she wrote this amazing thing that’s become part of our cultural DNA, and that’s not going to go away.”
Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 13-17.
The Herald, February 13th 2018