Taj Atwal: I wanted the ground to swallow me whole
17th Aug 2017
Taj Atwal stars as Rita in our new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea Dunbar’s iconic play. Read about Taj’s first encounter with the work of a young woman who would come to be her favourite playwright.
I was a loud, passionate 18 year old heading off to drama school in leafy Surrey. It was a world away from North Yorkshire but I was fearless and streetwise, and felt I’d be able to settle in with no issues. But drama school was, it turned out, a world unknown to me. Sat in a circle on the first day we were asked to say one fascinating thing about ourselves and what we had been doing that summer. Teens shared stories of backpacking on their gap year around Vietnam, Cambodia and the Americas, others reeled off Shakespeare plays they had seen at the Globe. I muttered something about my own summer highlight, a trip to see my idols, the Spice Girls.
Some gasped, most laughed. I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. For the first time in my life, I was aware of a class divide, and it set me up for three years of feeling inadequate. I’d lived my life first on a council estate in Norwich and then growing up among working-class northerners in York. Presuming myself to be out of my depth, I struggled to apply myself to Shakespeare or other remote-seeming classical texts.
One rainy winter morning I was sulking in the library, attempting to choose a play to perform for our next module and unable to find one that resonated, when I stumbled across Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor. WOW. “This is me,” I mumbled, turning page after page. Here were words that sounded like mine, characters I had grown up with. Eager to read more I spent the afternoon on the internet soaking up Andrea’s short and shocking life of hunger, teenage pregnancy, poverty and success, and her tragic early death. She hailed from the Buttershaw Estate on the outskirts of Bradford, coming of age at a time when unemployment was at a peak of three million. Out of this despair came her words, so true, raw and unfiltered and funny.
When she wrote The Arbor, Andrea was only 15 and struggling to complete English homework. A teacher encouraged her to write a play instead. From this The Arbor was born, and after sending it to the Royal Court young writers programme, Andrea’s play received a successful run, followed by a commission that led to her second, most famous play and subsequent film.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is about two teenage girls and their affair with an older man. These girls came from a place where the opportunity to thrive was non-existent. I play Rita, who has no father, several siblings, lives with her mother and is Sue’s best friend. Rita instantly falls for Bob’s charm. He shows her attention and – it seems to her – the adoration she has never received. He listens to her and having never had a male role model she looks up to him and doesn’t see his flaws.
I love the complexity Andrea gives Rita. On the surface, she’s a normal 15 year old girl up for a laugh. But underneath are layers of vulnerability and naivety – she’s easily manipulated by both Sue and Bob. And she harbours an aspiration to be something more than her circumstances promise. Like Andrea, these girls came from a place where the opportunity to thrive was almost non-existent, where the only permitted ambition for a girl was to be married with kids in a nice house. Bob is quick to put down her dreams of studying to be a policewoman or travelling, and it’s because of Bob she loses the chance to pursue them.
At 15 I was resolute that I would leave my city, see the world and become an actress. I also recall an overwhelming loneliness and the hunger to be something more. That’s what drives the characters in this play – the fight to be heard, to be loved and to be more than what their situation allows them to be. Why do they feel so real? Because Andrea knew these people, lived with them, grew up with them. As with all great playwriting, parts of her are in all of her characters. She gave a voice to a community who were suffering in Thatcher’s Britain – whether they wanted it or not.
Andrea wasn’t unique in her experience of alcoholism, domestic abuse and underage sex and pregnancy, nor in clawing some kind of life back from it. But her voice was unique, and silenced tragically young – she was dead at 29 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly triggered by a pub fight. She’d had three plays staged at one of the world’s most famous theatres, and in practical terms it hadn’t changed the course of her life at all.