It’s Christmas 1990 and we are at the Beacon pub on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford where playwright Andrea Dunbar is looking back over her life, telling us her story in her own words.
Too often her narrative was appropriated by others for their own purposes but Lisa Holdsworth’s brilliant adaptation of Adelle Stripe’s novel, inspired by Dunbar’s life and work, hands it squarely back to where it belongs. This is no hagiography, however. It is a portrait of a hugely talented creative force whose shining potential was cut cruelly short at the age of just 29 but it also reveals a complex, flawed three-dimensional woman who as her best friend Eileen says, “could start an argument in a graveyard”.
As Dunbar (Emily Spowage) sits in her local, notebook, pint and fags on the table, she conjures up her younger self (Lucy Hird) and takes the audience through the highlights and low points of her experiences as a teenager suddenly thrust into the limelight when her writing is championed by the Royal Court Theatre. An impressive all-female cast of five present compelling and totally believable characterisations of the feisty, resilient women in Dunbar’s life, with the succession of “useless men” that Dunbar came into contact with referred to but mostly kept out of the picture. The play is particularly good on Dunbar’s complicated relationship with her writing. Truth was her watchword, but describing the (sometimes brutal) reality of what she saw around her brought her into conflict with the people she was living among. Just as in Dunbar’s own work there is plenty of lively wit and humour here – her fantastically dry response to the ‘luvviness’ of London theatreland is priceless – alongside darker themes of domestic violence, financial difficulty, writer’s block and struggles with alcohol. Ultimately what the production does beautifully is to honour Dunbar’s legacy in a manner of which she surely would have approved – with unflinching honesty and a whole lot of laughs.
To June 8, then touring. Details and to book freedomstudios.co.uk
ambassadors pub, bradford