The Victoria Theatre, Halifax – Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th November 2022
Reviewed by Sal E Marino
Rita, Sue and Bob Too has become a cult classic within the genre of ‘northern gritty drama’ and everyone of a certain age can quote word for word some of it’s golden lines. Indeed, many audience members at the fabulous Victoria Theatre, Halifax, (where you always receive a warm Yorkshire welcome) couldn’t wait to hear some of those ionic phrases and were shouting them out and cheering loudly when the very talented acting crew delivered them! Screen-to-stage adaptations (albeit Rita, Sue and Bob Too was performed on the stage before the popular film version) don’t always work as well, especially one where by the film is loved so much as the expectations are almost too high to level up to but, I have to say, I enjoyed Andrew Ashley’s (Artistic director) and Andy Fretwell’s (Managing Director) Rita, Sue and Bob Too more than the film! Why – because I feel, after researching the writer, Andrea Dunbar, and being lucky enough to see ‘Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile‘ (a magnificent play about the trials and tribulations of Andrea’s short and bitter-sweet life) that Ashley and Fretwell have done her justice and fulfilled her wishes of how she wanted the play to be and that’s very different to the film’s ending. For me, the uncomfortable elephant in the room that permeates throughout the film has finally been resolved. We all booed Bob at The Victoria, we didn’t laugh along with him or find him funny in anyway. And yet, there was no anger, the play did NOT lose any humour at all, it was hilarious, just different – but in a good and better way.
It’s a very raw, harsh but strangely touching piece of popular theatre that encapsulates the mood of the 1980s – Thatcher’s Britain, when a generation of men realised that their jobs-for-life, especially in certain northern industries, were now gone and ‘they’ were no longer needed – obsolete – they didn’t fit into the new corporate, financial world. So what happened to some of them such as on those on the Buttershaw estate, Bradford, where Sue and Rita lived – unfortunately drink, depression and a vicious cycle of poverty and abuse of various kinds. Pretty grim – so it’s amazing how this play, with all it’s dark sides can evoke such laughter, that in the face of such adversity we can chuckle along at the dialogue.
Beginning with the scene on the moors, where sleazy Bob played by Dale Vaughan, (this play is Dale’s professional debut and in my view he nailed it – spot on!) first seduces Rita and Sue really sets the play’s narrative and different tone – it’s uncomfortable – it’s not how I remember it in the film probably because I’m now a grown up – with a child just a bit younger than Rita and Sue and I didn’t laugh – I cringed a great deal! Both Emma Hooker (Rita) and Polly Lovegrove (Sue) were so believable in their roles as these two teenagers who sadly had no hopes or dreams and no aspirations other than to live in a house that has space, quiet, no screaming and shouting and if that involves being with a slime-ball older man like Bob (who would inevitably cheat on them too like he was with them), then that wasn’t a problem because they wanted to be Michelle because she has nice clothes and nice things. The way this came out on stage highlighted the girls’ vulnerability, young age, lack of: guidance, care and nurturing love the film doesn’t bring in my opinion. Thankfully, the behaviour of that such as Bob has started to be exposed now and people won’t turn a blind-eye anymore if they’re aware, we’ve just got the monster of the media to tackle to ensure that our young girls and women can find inspiring role models and mentors who dis-encourage the sexualisation of young females today. That aside, the action and pace of the play just flowed as the multi-media backdrop clips of news and events of 80s flashed up on stage. We were reminded of the wave of the times – protests, riots, anger, disease, despair along with greed and ‘loadsa money’ … which made one reflect about those issues and their relevance today.
Another actors professional debut is that of Andrew Ashley, who plays ‘Dad’ and the only word for his performance is ‘professional’. From the look, the walk, the line delivery – the whole essence of the character he was portraying, Ashley had this down to a tee! He stole the show, burnt it up – I could have watched a drama of just him arguing and sparing with ‘Mum’, Alison Gibson (yet another professional debut who was equal to Andrew Ashley’s Dad in every way). These two – Mum and Dad – were comedy gold, like Jim Royal and his long suffering wife except with an edge – the swearing, the insults and threats weren’t solved by having a chocolate digestive and a brew – more like a bottle of vodka to knock them out of their depressing reality.
One character very different from the film version was Michelle played by Charlotte Spowage (another long suffering wife) and I’m so glad she was! You like Michelle in this play, really feel for her and she delivered a line that I won’t repeat here but had the whole theatre cheering and willing her on to leave creepy Bob. Another refreshing difference from the film was George North playing ‘Sam’ who stood in the balcony shouting some iconic lines with a pumped up attitude and look of the time.
This play and whole production has the heart the size of Yorkshire – big, warm and it keeps beating and going even times are tough! A wonderful tribute to Andrea Dunbar – it’s a blast, you’ll love it!