Presented by Out of Joint, Octagon Theatre Bolton and Royal Court Theatre at York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 14th November 2017
Reviving this nineteen-eighties coming-of-age tale surrounding an underage affair is an interesting choice in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. Writer Andrea Dunbar’s “refusal to moralise” on what we currently know as statutory rape makes this a complex theatrical experience.
The production values are slick. The set is an impressive section of flats book-ending a distant view of a town including rolling hills and estates, complete with lights and sky. The music is fitting and evocative, used in interludes to deepen our understanding of each character’s internal situation. The acting is consistently fantastic.
James Atherton’s Bob is playfully predatory, carefully testing the waters before developing his advances. Taj Atwal plays Rita as naive and grumpily childlike with brief moments in which she feels comfortable appealing to Sue for serious conversation, making her conclusion all the more lonely and upsetting. Gemma Dobson stands out as Sue, giggly and easygoing with deep undercurrents of awareness and self-care.
We are aptly transported to Rita, Sue and Bob’s small world view. What divides the auditorium is the script.
More and more, we exist in the black and white. Political, personal and international events drive people further apart toward hyperbolic loyalty to one side or another. Dunbar’s observational, semi-autobiographical drama drags us back to the grey area. It is a stark reminder of the complexities that make up any narrative; of duplicitous truth. It spends quiet moments acknowledging lust and romantic ideation as an important feature in a victim’s experience; prominent emotions that are often silenced lest they support the wrong narrative. The women in this play describe the men as inevitable cheaters, while blaming each other for driving the unfortunate events, enhancing the long-accepted rendering that women are in control of their abuse and men are simply predictable, sex-crazed neanderthals guided by them.
The sex that fills the story is in turn played for comedy and for a feeling of longing and connection, just bare enough to drive some audience members from the room while the rest erupt in laughter, uncomfortable in some places and raucous in others. What permeates is a sense of three immature souls desperate for something, clutching at anything, with a tragically foreseeable conclusion and complete lack of just consequence. Young women shoulder the blame, burden and hurt of a careless affair while the abuser seemingly avoids any retribution and loses one family only to replace them with another, giving the impression that the cycle will go on. And of course we know it does.