It’s probably through the 1987 film Rita, Sue and Bob Too that most people have heard of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar.
Set and shot in and around her home city, it was adapted by Dunbar from her 1982 stage play and told the story of two teenage girls and their relationship with an older married man. It was quite unlike anything anyone had seen before but its titillating tagline ‘Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down’ somehow trivialised its gritty subject matter. Yes, it was funny but it had a dark underside.
This combination of light and shade, of the humorous and the hard-hitting, was characteristic of Dunbar’s work in her tragically short career as a writer. She died in 1990 at the age of 29 after collapsing in the Beacon pub on the Buttershaw estate where she had lived most of her life. The three plays she left behind The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Shirley, all based on her lived experience, unflinchingly documented the sometimes brutal reality of working class life.
Her own was not easy – her first pregnancy at 15 ended in a stillbirth, she went on to have three children, two while she was still a teenager, experienced domestic violence and struggled with alcoholism. The raw authenticity of Dunbar’s work is thanks not only to her extraordinary talent and well-attuned writer’s sensibility but also to her absolute, unwavering commitment to telling the truth. “You write what’s said,” she told the Yorkshire Post on the release of Rita, Sue and Bob Too “you don’t lie.”
She later found she had to defend the film against its detractors, explaining that it was primarily about ‘the healthy relationship between two teenage girls in the last year at the local comprehensive and the everyday traumas they share together’ adding that although Rita and Sue ‘don’t have a great deal to laugh about, they have a natural joie de vivre’. Dunbar didn’t have much to laugh about either, but she retained her natural wit and intelligence, channelling it into her peerless storytelling.
Dunbar’s legacy, which has been sorely underrated, is now being celebrated in a new play, Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile, which opened in Bradford this week.
Adapted by award-winning screenwriter Lisa Holdsworth from Adelle Stripe’s outstanding debut novel inspired by Dunbar’s life and work, the play is produced by Bradford’s Freedom Studios in association with Leeds-based Red Ladder. Both theatre companies are known for making accessible work and touring it to non-traditional theatre spaces and Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile begins its tour at The Ambassador pub in Bradford city centre for a 10-night run before heading out to community venues around West Yorkshire and beyond.
“The Ambassador is the most amazing location,” says Holdsworth whose credits include Ackley Bridge and Call the Midwife. “For anyone who grew up in the North, it will feel oddly familiar – you will have had birthday parties and gone to wedding receptions in places like that. The action takes place around the audience while they are having their drinks. The idea is that people who don’t normally go to the theatre will come. There is a lot of humour and we want to give people a good night out.”
Holdsworth hopes the play will also allow audiences to gain an understanding of the enormity of Dunbar’s achievement, against all the odds. “I’m sure a lot of what has fuelled me and Adelle is about how poorly Andrea has been treated by history. There was a lot of snobbery around her work all her life and that continues even now. Her body of work was created in the face of huge barriers and enormous disadvantage and she pushed through all that, and that is not to be sniffed at.”
On a lighter note she also wants the piece to highlight the upbeat, joyful, life-affirming side of Dunbar. “She was very witty and great company, which is something Adelle captures so well in her book, so I would really like people to come away thinking ‘I wish I could have gone for a pint with her.’”
In a sense that is exactly what people who go to see the play will be able to do – the setting is the Beacon, Dunbar’s local, and the audience are invited in to hear the narrative unfold in her own words. The play features an all-female cast of five with two actors – Emily Spowage and Lucy Hird – portraying Dunbar at different stages of her life. “We are approaching things with sensitivity and really trying to understand Andrea’s motivations,” says Spowage. “We’re not trying to do an impersonation of her, it is more about getting a sense of who she was and her spirit. The great thing about the way the play is written is that we get to see different facets of her personality – it is not critical of her flaws and it’s not hero worship; it is a portrait of a talented but troubled person.” Hird grew up in Westwood Park in Bradford, not far from the Buttershaw estate and members of her family knew Dunbar. “She was a local celebrity and people have been really interested to hear that I am playing her,” she says. “For me it’s important to show that she was a real, three-dimensional person; she was quite shy, but she knew her own mind and she was very funny; it’s about conveying the essence of her – and allowing her to tell her own story.”
And that is a key point – too often Dunbar’s story was told by others who had a particular agenda and she repeatedly faced prejudice of one kind or another, as Adelle Stripe explains. “When a Guardian journalist first visited Andrea to interview her about The Arbor in 1980, the article was peppered with descriptions of social deprivation – ‘it’s the worst street on the worst estate in Bradford; the only waiting list is the one to get out’. This condescending style of expression would continue throughout her life, and Andrea constantly fought against the media’s misconceptions of Buttershaw.” In fact, Stripe argues, Buttershaw gave Dunbar a unique vision and provided her with the inspiration for her writing, even though it sometimes led to her feeling conflicted. “She had an uneasy relationship with her literary career, and her role as a single mother of three interfered with her writing ambitions,” says Stripe. “Towards the end of her life she struggled to write, at the time of her death she owed scripts to various producers and suffered from writer’s block. The financial success and moral uproar provoked by the film had many implications in her personal life which continued in the years following its release.”
“Something we have talked about a lot over the course of working on this project is where Andrea would have been now,” says Holdsworth. “I really hope that someone would have taken her on; she needed guidance which is what everyone from her background who wants to work in our industry needs. I think she might have made a great soap writer or film writer. I’d like to think that in some parallel universe she would be happy – and her kids would be happy.”
What Stripe feels is most important for people who know little about Dunbar to take away from the play is that “she was documenting real life, as she experienced it, with no judgement; it was a clear and honest account of the hardships of working class life, warts and all. They are difficult truths, but they provide an important insight into that period in history, and we should view her writing against the social and political backdrop of that time.”
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is at the Ambassadors Bradford until June 8 and then on tour. For details and to book visit www.freedomstudios.co.uk