Rita, Sue and Andrea too... 20 years on, a playwright's story is told again

Bradford, 1979. A no-holds-barred drama vignette by a teenage schoolgirl captures the imagination of Max Stafford-Clark, one of the country's leading stage producers.

Soon, 18-year-old Andrea Dunbar is being hailed as an original voice in the mould of John Osborne, the angry young man of the 1950s whose vim, vigour and vitriol ushered in a new shining age of classic British theatre.

Over the course of 10 years, Dunbar wrote three plays. Two of them, The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too! were amalgamated to form the basis of the 1987 movie directed by Alan Clarke.

Based solidly on Dunbar's own youth and the drunken rows that rocked her home in Buttershaw, above Bradford, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! exploded on to the late '80s film scene with a force that had to be witnessed to be believed.

It was an austere and contentious portrait of Thatcherite Britain that became the bane of critics, a convenient football for local politicians and a burden for the twentysomething single mother who still lived on the sink estate that inspired it. It was also a smash hit.

Dunbar, an ordinary Yorkshire lass with an extraordinary ear for real-life dialogue, went on to win the George Devine Award for Young Playwrights in 1981. She was castigated by her neighbours, fted by culture vultures and vigorously pursued by leading filmmakers such as

Ken Loach.

Then, quite suddenly, she was gone: dead from a brain haemorrhage at 29. She left behind three children, three completed plays and a reputation for piercing and discordant social realist theatre.

Bradford, 2009.

History is repeating itself. On the grass of Brafferton Arbor on the Buttershaw housing estate, five actors perform an intense and raw theatre piece before an audience equally puzzled and rapt in its attention.

Taking the lead is Natalie Gavin, a garrulous and bright-eyed 22-year-old Bradfordian. Plucked from obscurity, she brings plausibility and dynamism tothe character of a young woman who was handed an escape

route from poverty via the power of words.

Gavin, like Dunbar, is a revelation. Her multiple talents as an improvisational actor saw her elevated from Buttershaw School to a drama course at Intake Performing Arts College in Leeds. From there it was a short hop to university. With the assistance of a casting director and an agent, she landed the lead role in The Arbor.

"It's strange playing Andrea when her family's here, looking at me. It's spooky," she reveals.

"Andrea's son's here as well. I don't know what to say to him, to be honest. Do you say, 'I'm playing your mum? You don't really know her but I'm going to be reflecting how she was?' and I'm effing and blinding. What do you say? You've got to put yourself in their position.

"Andrea was quite an emotional person. She put walls up. But she was sharp as a knife; she'd give it to you, and she'd give you it good. Nobody would ever test her.

"She said, 'I don't bother with people. That way it's easier, people don't bother you'. I think that means a lot. She caged herself up. If she expressed any emotions it was through anger. She expressed on paper as well. The more I get to know her, the more I think, 'You've got too much on your shoulders, girl'."

The scene being played out is one of familial anguish against the death of a loved one. A father is berated by his son. A daughter bellows her contempt. Casual racism surges forth. And always there is the threat of latent violence becoming terrifyingly real.

The difference between Clio Bernard's The Arbor and Alan Clarke's Rita, Sue and Bob Too! is in its unusual construction. Both films were shot on location. Yet Bernard, a fine artist making her movie debut, creates her drama like theatre-in-the-round with real-life residents watching just yards away.

At the core of the action is Anglo/Asian actor Jimi Mistry, playing the two-fisted Pakistani boyfriend on the receiving end of some vicious taunts. He lights a cigarette and laughs in disbelief as a gang of kids stampede across the field and launch into a fight.

"It's hilarious!" he says, grinning. "Usually when you're filming you're conscious about being quiet. Here it's completely different. It's chaos erupting around you and you're performing in the middle.

"I've never done anything like this before. It's almost like doing a street theatre performance, but for film. In a way I feel like I'm part of an 'art' project. It is unique. I'm quite proud of being a part of it."

Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel, the London-based production company that also made The Battle of Orgreave, calls The Arbor "a magical realist documentary" – a project that hovers on the borders between documentary and fiction feature.

The film is a tapestry created from hours of contemporary interviews about Dunbar and her work that forms an audio screenplay which is then performed by actors who mouth the words. This soundtrack testimonial is punctuated by footage of the live performance of The Arbor to provide an added layer of narrative structure.

The actors are emoting less than 40 feet from the house in which Dunbar grew up. What's more, Pamela, Andrea's elder sister by 13 months, and Andrea's son, Andrew, are among the locals watching from the sidelines.

"Andrea wrote about what she knew, which was her life," comments Morris as he watches the action.

"The Arbor is autobiographical, indisputably. Rita, Sue and Bob Too! was very well known. There's nobody on this estate who hasn't seen it. The Arbor, which I think is a much more substantial achievement as a play, is not really known up here.

"It's much more real and much less dated. People are not engaging with it as a piece of history. It feels of the present. Now we're shooting it at absolutely the right time in absolutely the right place. A sense of timing is very important."

Director Bernard spent two-and-a-half years among the people of Buttershaw in order to lay the groundwork for her film which, like Rita, Sue…, is co-funded by Channel 4.

"Acceptance rightly should take time," adds Morris. "You've got to earn the trust. The media has a reputation as a sort of hit-and-run, leaving people high and dry. We don't work like that.

"We've taken an awful long time to get to understand what it is we're dealing with. That takes time and confidence and trust, all those things which we've built up otherwise we would not have been welcomed by this community at all. People have been respectful and gripped by (what they have witnessed]."

Andrea's sister Pam reluctantly agrees to discuss her famous sibling. She's proud but it's clear she is wary of journalists. Her comments are terse, her responses curt and considered.

"The last scene they were doing upset me just a little bit because I remembered it," she said, her eyes flicking across Brafferton Arbor where Bernard and her crew are breaking down the set. As we speak, a cheer rings out: it's a wrap.

Pam adds: "It's all true. It really happened. She wrote this play in her drama (class] at school. One of her teachers sent it off and they asked her to go down to London to write more. I think it was done before my mum and dad found out because afterwards they were chuffed.

"There's quite a lot of people in here that knew her. To me, she'll never be forgotten. She'll be remembered through her plays. She spoke her mind, you see."