Royal Court Theatre, London – until 27 January 2018
GIRLS ON THE EDGE… Honour to the Royal Court for two things. First for the initial wobble, then for executing a rapid u-turn over Andrea Dunbar’s rather wonderful play. So, after all, it completes its tour, as planned, by returning to the theatre where, under Max Stafford-Clark, it first opened in 1982. That made, with sad brevity, a star of the 19-year-old Bradford author – “a genius from the slums” someone wrote – and it stands firm in the Court’s tradition of making Britain look itself squarely in the face.
The initial panicky cancellation was understandable. Not only because Stafford-Clark of its parent company Out of Joint is now being accused of sexual misconduct (he left the production at the start of the rehearsal period) but for a subtler reason: the present-day common rhetoric paints all underage and exploited girls as purely victims, frozen and terrified – or drugged and bullied like the Rochdale and other grooming gang victims.
Here, the uncompromising honesty of the author rather blows the doors off that, showing us something more complex. Another way it can be. Dunbar knew of what she wrote: pregnant at 15, her child stillborn, she bore another In her teens and two more, spent time in a women’s refuge, and died a heavy drinker at only 29.
But what a flare, what a shooting-star she was. Her voice is that of women not only poor but very young, caught in a doldrum of social change and poverty but not pathetic, not cowed, nor burdened with adult commonsense. She does not underrate her protagonists’ excitement, animal energy and touching hopeless ambition for life and love. The two 15-year-old babysitters who have it off in turn in the car – or anywhere they can – with the bored husband and father Bob, twelve years their senior, are certainly being exploited. But they are also very much up for it in the first eyewateringly explicit scene in the car (simple onstage chairs, it’s nicely stark with a hilltop Bradford backdrop). Rarely is the banal absurdity of congress so unflinchingly shown as in Kate Wasserberg’s production). Rita and Sue continue as prime movers in the liaison, keen as mustard, unafraid, undrugged, funny and raunchy.
Of course, the situation falls to pieces – with a delicacy of understanding and compassion which makes you weep again that Dunbar died young and. Of course the pain of Bob’s wife is real, and the girls’ final estrangement harder on one than the other; but in the centre of the story, when the trio chase one another playfully round the theatre and collapse snuggled a trois on their hilltop , breathless and laughing, there is a real sense of fondness and fun. People can show spirit in the face of their various bleaknesses. Only a writer who has lived it can show that.
It is played with fast, funny, touching honesty by them all: the girls are terrific, both in their teenage mercilessness and their moments of awkwardness in the adult world for which they aren’t as ready for as they want to be. Taj Atwal is a skinny, ambitious, more thoughtful Rita, and Gemma Dobson Sue (a great professional debut) bossy and brash but helpless with her dreadful father and dotingly defensive Mum (Sally Bankes as everyone’s toughYorkshire matriarch) . The dynamic between the girls – best mates, fleetingly jealous, sharing Bob with wonderfully dismaying matter-of-fact immodesty – is perfect.
Bob’s initial seduction, a mixture of teacherly sex-education and employerly authority (oh, that two quid tip, seven in today’s money! Cider and chips money!) gives way to a kind of imprisoment. Most incorrectly in modern terms , Dunbar makes us momentarily sorry for the man who has created a monster in these two demanding teenagers wanting ‘a jump” , just at the moment when he is getting on a bit better with his children’s mother. He’s in a trap too, a declining economy costing him both work and virility: James Atherton’s momentary sob of despair when he fears losing his car is more moving than any abuser of fifteen-year-olds has a right to be.
Oh, it’s clever. And funny. And every laugh rings with bittersweet truths about youth and disillusion, the hunger for fun and fondness, the dislocating and liberating and destructive and absurd power of sex. Without sentimentality or piety or correctness, it captures life. And the ending, an older woman and a young one and a couple of rueful drinks, is perfect. No wonder Dunbar was reportedly so furious when Alan Clarke’s 1987 movie messed up her ending and made it crass. This is the real thing.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 27 Jan