Few plays have had as controversial a history as Rita, Sue and Bob Too which arrives at Mold’s Theatr Clwyd next week.
First performed in 1982, Andrea Dunbar’s semi-autobiographical play, written when she was just 19, became notorious for its opening scene where two schoolgirl babysitters take it in turns to have sex with their employer in the back of his car.
A film version, released in 1987, starring George Costigan as the nefarious Bob and Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes as the girls also became a cult classic with its graphic depiction of Sue and Rita’s life on a Bradford housing estate.
Then last month, Rita, Sue and Bob Too hit the headlines again when the play was axed by the Royal Court after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against Max Stafford-Clark, the founder of the company behind the production.
The production had been due to run for two-and-a-half weeks in January before being cancelled by the Royal Court, who held a day of action at the theatre and published an industry code of behaviour to prevent sexual harassment and abuse of authority.
Stafford-Clark left his position but The Royal Court said that staging the show, which features abuses of power on young women, felt “highly conflictual”.
Accusations of censorship quickly followed, leaving artistic director Vicky Featherstone “rocked to the core” before performances were reinstated following the intervention of playwright Carol Churchill, who successfully argued in support of Dunbar’s authentic working class female voice and the vital role of the play in contributing to the debate about sexual exploitation and teenage grooming.
“It was difficult and very upsetting,” says actress Taj Atwal, who plays Rita.
“For me, what it boiled down to was why were we silencing this remarkable young working class playwright?
“Luckily people understood that and the decision was made for us to put it back on.”
With a bit of perspective, Taj is now happy to admit the controversy has certainly helped the profile of a play that is proving popular with audiences across the country.
“It’s been amazing because its opened up this massive conversation about censorship in the arts and about sexual misconduct,” she says.
“Having lived through it I can see that it’s shone a light on those things – I just wish someone had told me back in December when I was crying my eyes out!
“The audience feedback has been really positive and the best thing has been how many newcomers the play is bringing to the theatre.
“We’ve had a lot of younger audiences in who can relate to it and then we get older people who say they lived through it in the 80s and now they worry about their children being easily manipulated by an older man.
“You can feel those dark undertones but they are punctuated by moments of lightness so you go away with so much food for thought.”
Taj , 30, was widely acclaimed for her performance in the second series of Kay Mellor’s In The Club on BBC One and she is best known for playing the role of Jasminder in the Ruth Jones BAFTA Cymru award winning comedy Stella aired on Sky One.
“The character of Rita was never written with a specific ethnicity,” she says, when I ask about the thinking behind making one of the girls Asian.
“It never crossed my mind and it’s not been brought up on the tour but I am glad if people can relate to the character that way.
“I just wanted to play a 15-year-old girl who was relatable to everybody – whatever her culture is teenagers experience similar feelings whether it’s love, lust or that need for attention.
“I still look like a teenager so physically it wasn’t hard at all but Rita is very different to how I was as a teen.
“I think I had a lot more bravado like Sue and I felt like I could conquer the world and I was certainly more streetwise.”
Away from the stage, Taj is enjoying the wider opportunities she feels are on offer for Asian actresses today.
“I used to be seen as a bit of a novelty,” she laughs. “But now people are actually beginning to realise we’ve been around for a very long time and share the same stories as everyone else.
“It’s great not to be put in a box anymore.”
As for coming to Mold, Taj is enthusiastic about Theatr Clwyd’s reputation with visiting actors.
“I’ve got loads of friends who’ve been there and Tamara Harvey (Theatr Clwyd’s artistic director) is phenomenal and is doing amazing things there,” she adds.
“Most of all though I can’t wait to get my hiking boots on and go for some long country walks.”
l Rita, Sue and Bob Too is at Theatr Clwyd – Anthony Hopkins Theatre from Tuesday February 6 to Saturday February 10 at 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2.30pm. Tickets from £10. Box office 01352 701521 and online at www.theatrclwyd.com