Andrea Dunbar was 15 when she wrote her first play, and her raw depictions of life on her Bradford estate caused a sensation. Now her own tragic life story is being told on stage.
Plays by teenage girls from northern council estates involving casual sex and domestic violence weren’t the norm at the Royal Court theatre in London in 1980.
That’s when Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor made its debut. She had written the first version four years earlier in green biro on pages torn from a school exercise book.
After seeing it, The Stage newspaper’s horrified critic wrote: “If this is a true picture of working class life in the north, the outlook is grim indeed.”
While some were shocked, for Dunbar, it was just real life. Her life.
The main character was called Andrea, who, like the writer herself, became pregnant at 15, had a miscarriage, moved in with a man who beat her, and moved to a refuge.
Dunbar’s second play, Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, became her most famous (and infamous) work after being turned into a film in 1987.
But after writing one more play, Dunbar’s inspiration largely dried up and she died after suffering a brain haemorrhage in her local pub in 1990 at the age of 29.
She’s remembered as a biting, funny writer who put working class life on show without judgement or sentiment.
“Every word rings true,” says dramatist Lisa Holdsworth, who has written for Call the Midwife and Midsomer Murders, and has penned the script for the play about Dunbar’s life.
“Her work had that enormous authenticity. And she was unflinching – she never looked away, she never watered it down or put a nice spin on it. I cannot imagine Andrea compromising, ever.”
When The Arbor was staged, The Mail on Sunday proclaimed her “a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a brilliant smile”.
The new play is titled Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, adapted from Adelle Stripe’s biographical novel of the same name. It will be performed in a Bradford pub before a tour of community venues, including a couple on Dunbar’s own Buttershaw estate.
A separate BBC Radio 4 drama will also tell the writer’s story in June.
Dunbar wrote about what she knew. Rita, Sue and Bob Too, in which a married man lures his teenage babysitters into a casual love triangle, was partly inspired by her own life and partly by two raucous girls she overheard in the ladies’ toilet at Keighley Market.
“It was written before the idea of grooming even existed in this country,” Holdsworth says.
“The reality of how what sets out as something fun, and how two girls with bad home lives might want that attention and how it can quickly turn abusive and nasty and emotionally scarring, is a very modern take on it. I think it’s why that play still gets produced.”
The men in Dunbar’s own life – often abusive and domineering – have been cut out of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile entirely. This play has an all-female cast.
Holdsworth explains that instead of showing the damage done by the men, she wanted to focus on the women who “not only are subject to that abuse but survive it, thrive after it, bounce back”.
There were men who had a positive impact on Dunbar’s life – like the English teacher who spotted her talent and encouraged her to write. Her work was eventually passed to the Royal Court by a friend of a worker at the refuge where Dunbar stayed.
One question that often gets asked in theatre circles is – could Dunbar, a girl with clear talent but no silver spoon or foot in the door, get noticed if she was starting out today?
Holdsworth is also the deputy chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and recently gave evidence about this very question at the Houses of Parliament.
“Having spoken to a couple of sociologists and researchers, the truth is it’s always been hard, and it’s still hard,” she says.
“There was never a golden age when working class people were being listened to and elevated. There are outliers and I think Andrea was very much an outlier. She had the skill but there was a little bit of luck as well involved. But that’s true for every writer.”
The thing that has changed, she believes, is the time and resources schools have to nurture talent. The numbers of students taking GCSE and A-Level drama have dropped by a third in the last decade.
“The idea that a teacher would have time to nurture a talent outside of the curriculum, outside of SATs, and exams and league tables – I think that’s probably where it has got harder,” Holdsworth says.
“If there’s a fully-formed Andrea out in Bradford now, I really hope she’s being listened to.”
One organisation trying to listen is theatre company Out Of Joint, which has just toured a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Artistic director Kate Wasserberg launched The Andrea Project – a scheme to find young writers from difficult backgrounds around the UK.
“The voices are there and we just need to keep clearing the path,” she says.
“The first intervention in Andrea’s life was a schoolteacher saying, ‘You should write a play’. I’m sure there are many noble teachers who will find ways, but it’s less and less likely, and more and more difficult for that to happen in an educational system outside of private school.
“If you start cutting out an entire section of society because they haven’t got the money to join, you’re less likely to discover those geniuses.”
The Andrea Project has been run in Bolton, Sheffield and Northampton so far, and some of those participating teenagers are continuing to work on their scripts with their local theatres.
Even if they don’t turn out to be writing geniuses, Wasserberg hopes participants will pursue careers in the arts, or a lifelong interest in theatre.
‘Your voice is just as important’
Meanwhile, Dunbar’s life story continues to provide inspiration. Director Clio Barnard retold it in her Bafta-nominated 2010 film The Arbor, and Adelle Stripe’s book, its stage adaptation and Sean Grundy’s Radio 4 drama are now keeping her memory alive.
“She’s still a symbol of something to a lot of writers,” Holdsworth says.
“A symbol of – it can be done, perseverance will pay off, and your voice is just as important as someone with 15 degrees and all those people who come from a certain degree of privilege.
“The working class voice is just as important, just as entertaining, just as vibrant, just as literary as anyone else’s. So that I think is why she perseveres and hasn’t sunk into obscurity.”
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, produced by Freedom Studios, is at The Ambassador pub in Bradford from 30 May-8 June. Rita, Sue and Andrea Too is on Radio 4 at 14:15 BST on 7 June.