“This performance contains swearing and scenes of a sexual nature,” intones the voiceover that precedes Rita, Sue and Bob Too – and the whole theatre cheers.
We’re not sure that was the intended outcome, but the audience at the St Helens Theatre Royal have come determined to get their money’s worth from this bawdy 80s play. Set in a depressed northern town in Thatcher’s Britain and later turned into a hit film starring George Costigan, it had the tagline “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down”.
When odd-job man Bob takes his two schoolgirl babysitters for a ride home – and more besides – in his battered Ford Escort Cabriolet he commences a three-way relationship that offers all of them an escape from their mundane lives.
Bob is broke and miserable with his family life, a serial philanderer though not without charm and wit – like a working-class Boris Johnson in a south Yorkshire terrace; the girls face a life of few prospects and the pointlessness of a school they don’t attend: “That’s why we’re thick,” says Sue, matter-of-factly.
Rita and Sue are played beautifully by Kay Nicholson and Olivia Sloyan respectively, flitting from studied boredom to childlike disgust to tarty mischievousness by turn. When Sue is enjoying her ‘ride’ in Bob’s car, legs akimbo, Sloyan’s feet tap to the beat of the golden oldies on the car radio; the pair have worked a dozen funny little moments and gestures into their performance.
It may not be Shakespeare but Parr gives us his finest Bottom nonetheless…
With a rap sheet including having sex with minors and threatening to beat up women, Bob’s relationships are more menage-a-twat than menage-a-trois. Played winningly and not unsympathetically by St Helens-born actor and Emmerdale star Michael Parr, Bob creates a dynamic between the trio that is sweet, grubby and very funny by turn.
It may not be Shakespeare but Parr gives us his finest Bottom nonetheless, quite literally and within five minutes of the curtain going up. It’s a bare-faced introduction to the sort of play that goes for broke with the laughs. When Crissy Rock arrives as Sue’s Mum, the play goes up to eleven.
Rock – an actor who many thought should win an Oscar for her role in Ken Loach’s film Ladybird, Ladybird, let’s not forget – immediately spots Bob’s intentions for what they are. “Do you think I’ve just fell out of a tree? she barks at her daughter, who denies any wrongdoing, in what is one of Rita, Sue and Bob Too’s few genuine attempts to dissect what amounts to a man corrupting two minors.
When she later appears, like Hilda Ogden guest-starring in Shameless, it’s a scene- (or show-) stealing turn, making the most of a headscarf gone awry and grabbing the flat cap from the head of Sue’d Dad (a stoically pissed and spitefully unpleasant Dad).
Still, we’re left to ponder the outlook for all concerned, courtesy of Sue, her Mum and Bob’s estranged wife Michelle – played like a sozzled, grieving trifle by Jessica Ellis, who makes the most of what might be the most awkward round of ham sandwiches in theatre.
If audiences were unsure of the tonal shifts of the film, which veers from broad comedy to gritty realism, there’s little to baffle here – among a number of 80s hits only The Specials’ Ghost Town hints at the desolation of the protagonists’ lot. Instead Rita, Sue and Bob Too is an unashamedly raucous, ridiculous and randy affair – a wry celebration of small-town life and its simpler pleasures.
We wouldn’t have been surprised if the audience had conga-d their way out of the theatre singing about gangbangs.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too
St Helens Theatre Royal
Until 13 November