How Rita, Sue and Bob Too puts an authenic Yorkshire voice centre stage

The new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too.
The new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too.
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As Rita, Sue and Bob Too and new play Scary Bikers head to the region, Nick Ahad considers two authentic Yorkshire voices.

Earlier this week I was tagged in a tweet by writer, actor and storyteller Irene Lofthouse.

John Godber and Jane Thornton in rehearsals for Scary Bikers.

John Godber and Jane Thornton in rehearsals for Scary Bikers.

She was asking myself and other writers she knows, including TV writer Lisa Holdsworth, about authenticity.

Irene wrote: “Writer friends; what’s an authentic voice and why is it necessary? I’m doing a session tomorrow about the subject with teachers.”

It was an interesting thing, being asked the question on such a public medium. I spent far longer composing an answer than was strictly necessary when Lisa Holdsworth stepped in and provided an answer of her own, relieving the pressure.

Lisa, who has written for TV shows including Fat Friends, Emmerdale, New Tricks, Waterloo Road and is currently writing for the Channel 4 four show Ackley Bridge, Tweeted: “It’s necessary because your audience will switch off if it doesn’t sound right/real. Voice communicates class, age, era, experience – and that’s why writers need to get out and hear voices, so they can build up their inner library.”

Lisa is, of course spot on. It was a coincidence that Irene had sent the tweet in a week in which I have been thinking a lot about the connection between two Yorkshire writers who couldn’t be more authentically Yorkshire – although each in what feels like a very different way.

Andrea Dunbar was the Bradford writer whose life was cut tragically short, but whose work lives on mainly in the shape of her most famous piece; Rita, Sue and Bob Too. John Godber is the Wakefield son of a miner who went on to become a doctor in Germanic theatre who now has over 50 plays to his name with another arriving in the coming weeks.

Both Dunbar and Godber, separated by so many things: gender, era, lifestyle, are also in many ways united. They rose from the same class background, both Northern, two qualities that infected their work entirely.

Born in 1961, Andrea Dunbar was brought up on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford, the world that served as a setting for her three plays. I know the Buttershaw estate and I know how hard life can be in these Bradford estates. That Dunbar’s writing rose out of such circumstance offers an easy explanation of why it still survives today – to rise above working class Bradford estates you need to be beyond ordinary. Dunbar was far beyond ordinary. That her work is still celebrated, staged and serves as an inspiration for others two and a half decades after her death shows just how far beyond ordinary.

Dunbar’s first play, The Arbor, was written while she was a schoolgirl. It was part of her English CSE, but when it found its way to the Royal Court in London, it became clear that this was so much more than a school student’s project. In 1982, Dunbar wrote her next play. She was 19, the play was semi-autobiographical and it was called Rita, Sue and Bob Too – and it rocked the theatrical world.

Audiences in the London theatre could scarcely believe that here was a life lived by real people being shown on their stages. The rest of us couldn’t believe how real the life was that was being shown on their stages.

Last year the Royal Court decided to restage Dunbar’s most successful play (turned into a cult film by Alan Clarke in 1987) with Max Stafford-Clarke, the play’s original director who discovered Dunbar, at the helm. Allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced about the director in the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the production was shelved.

Following a huge outcry, Vicky Featherstone, the Royal Court’s artistic director, reversed the decision. The play, already selling well, became a sell out. How fortunate we are that it was already booked to play the brilliant Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.

The production, now directed by Kate Wasserber, is at the theatre from January 30 to February 3. Without the controversy of being cancelled then reinstated, the play was already selling well. It has now almost entirely sold out, with an extra performance now added on February 2 at 5.30pm.

A line drawn, then, from Dunbar to Godber – and an answer to Irene’s twitter question.

Authenticity matters because without it, there are vast swathes of us who never get to see our lives on stage – and when we see our lives reflected in art we begin to understand ourselves. It also allows us to do the thing that Atticus Finch urges Scout to do: walk around in someone else’s shoes.

Godber has been inviting theatre audiences, a place where you are likely to find the middle classes, to walk around in the shoes of the people he grew up around. The son of a miner from Wakefield, Godber’s plays have always rung out with authenticity, from the working all week to blow your wage on a Friday life of those in Bouncers to the realities of trying to crowd control unruly pupils in Teechers. His latest play, The Scary Bikers, is one of the first commissions from Sky Arts which dedicated £1m to make 50 artworks exploring post-Brexit Britain.

The Scary Bikers sees a Yorkshire couple with opposing views on Brexit embarking on a tandem ride through Europe. Featuring Godber himself alongside his actor wife Jane Thornton, it examines the effect of the 2016 Referendum on this new relationship.

It’s a new play, so telling you what it will be like is tricky. What I can guarantee is that it, like Rita, Sue and Bob Too, will provide a loud and clear answer to the question: “What’s an authentic voice and why is it necessary?”.