Preview: Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile

Playwright Andrea Dunbar lived a short and brutal life on a Bradford estate. Her once popular work fell out of favour but deserves a wider audience, says the creator of a new drama about her life

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From the frizzy mullets to the frilly valances and the happy ending, the final freeze frame of Alan Clarke’s 1987 Channel 4 film Rita, Sue and Bob Too hasn’t aged well. Bob gleefully leaps into bed with Rita and Sue but the creator of the play that inspired the film never meant it as such rollicking, albeit tabooed, good fun.

Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play is the story of a polyamorous relationship between a married man and two underage girls. Although she never condemns Bob’s actions outright she does dole out some form of comeuppance to the character and sßœhe insisted that Clarke’s ending would never have happened.

“I feel strongly that it’s time women have their say about Andrea. Men had their chance and they’d messed it up,” says Lisa Holdsworth, the Leeds-based playwright who’s adapted a novel about Dunbar’s life for stage. Based on the eponymous book by Adelle Stripe, Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile will feature an all-female cast.

“That was something we decided from the off. It came partly from a review of a recent production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too that I had read. It was in one of the Tory papers and the male reviewer was incredibly sniffy about the ‘vulgar language’ and ‘sexual depravity’ he thought he could see in the play. He ended his review by saying: ‘And, of course, Dunbar drank herself to death at 29.’

“I was incensed. First of all, she didn’t. She died of a brain haemorrhage. Second of all, it was clear that this middle-class man had made his mind up about the narrative of Andrea’s life and the facts weren’t about to get in his way.”

Main image: playwright Lisa Holdsworth and above Andrea Dunbar

Dunbar was born in Bradford in 1961 and lived a short and brutal life on the Buttershaw Estate, which forms the backdrop to her three plays. Her first, The Arbor (1977), a story of a Bradford schoolgirl who falls pregnant to her Pakistani boyfriend on a racist estate, was written when Dunbar was just 15 following the tragic stillbirth of her first child. She went on to have three more children with three men by age 23, became an increasingly heavy drinker and spent 18 months in a women’s refuge, while her plays took on a life of their own on the stage of the Royal Court and beyond.

“I wouldn’t say she wrote to escape her world – she loved Buttershaw and her family. She wanted her writing to reflect the realities of her life and to encompass the highs as well as the lows,” says Holdsworth.

The play is part of a recent surge in interest in Dunbar who, despite early success, has since been much overlooked. Holdsworth believes her canon of work deserves more recognition.

“It’s actually very hard to get hold of copies of her plays. I’d love to see them republished in a collection. And I think Rita, Sue and Bob Too should be on the GCSE or A-level curriculum. I think so many people are turned off theatre because they believe it is just a stage full of people talking in posh accents. And it often is. But if they read Andrea’s work they’d realise that everyone’s stories are valuable and theatrical.”

The playwright adds that the most important thing for this play was to put Dunbar’s voice front and centre. It features two Andreas, young and old, and women that surrounded her.

“I hope it challenges the idea that people like Andrea, who live with poverty and depravation, live in a grey world of misery and drudge,” says Holdworth, who was approached by Bradford’s Freedom Studios for the project.

“What you have in your bank balance doesn’t dictate your right to experience joy, love and excitement. Everyone has the right to happiness. Andrea’s life had its low points, but they were outnumbered by the highs, in my opinion. She found her voice and she made people listen. And she’s still doing that now.”

Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile opens at the Ambassador, Bradford, 30 May, and tours around Yorkshire until 30 June. It visits Buttershaw Youth Centre on 17 June (freedomstudios.co.uk) 

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