Andrea Dunbar: does the revival of interest in a working-class genius focus too much on her troubled personal life?

Published in the i May 29, 2019

Andrea Dunbar is back in Bradford – and back down the pub. After writing three scorchingly honest, brutal comedy-dramas – The Arbor, Rita Sue and Bob Too, and Shirley – about life on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford, the playwright died of a brain haemorrhage in a pub toilet in 1990 at the age of 29.

If she faded from view somewhat in the intervening decades, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest. Following the release of Clio Barnard’s documentary The Arbor in 2010, in which actors mime accounts by real people, there was a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too by theatre company Out of Joint in 2017.

The latest tales from Buttershaw feature in Rita, Sue and Andrea Too, a BBC Radio 4 drama, airing on 7 June, while a stage play kicks off a northern tour in the Ambassador’s pub in her hometown this week.

The radio drama looks at Dunbar’s life and career through the eyes of Jennie Howarth, a film producer who was originally signed up to direct the movie of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, about two teenage friends sleeping with the same married man. It suggests that things really went downhill for Dunbar after the movie was taken over by director Alan Clarke, who defied Dunbar’s wishes by filming in the Buttershaw estate and giving the grim story a happy ending.

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, Adelle Stripe’s harsh yet beautifully wrought 2017 novel, meanwhile, has been adapted for the theatre by Lisa Holdsworth. It is fiction grounded in fact, re-telling Dunbar’s short life that had plenty of drama of its own.

Dunbar was a rare thing in the Eighties (and now): a working-class voice that broke through into theatre. Her writing was, and is, called “raw”, “unflinching”, “authentic”. And her story has many irresistible components: precocious talent, unexpected luck, a fish-out-of-water narrative.

Dunbar wrote The Arbor when she was only 15, for her drama CSE. She’d never seen a play. There’s your raw talent. But it was only at a women’s shelter, after being beaten by a partner, that she happened to meet a woman working in theatre, who showed the script to Max Stafford-Clark. He put it on at the Royal Court, where it became a hit. There’s your Cinderella moment.

Except it wasn’t, really. Because Dunbar didn’t want to magically transform. “They all seem to think I should go down to London and be a bit of a prat. I don’t mind visiting, but I don’t like living there,” she later said.

And crucially, Dunbar wasn’t given the means to transform. Plays didn’t pay much. She continued to live in poverty. A single mother of three children, she needed to stay at Buttershaw for family support.

Meanwhile, the press had a field day with the less-than-fairy tale aspects of Dunbar’s life. There was gawping coverage of the rough estate, the depiction of grinding poverty illustrative of a growing north-south divide in Thatcher’s Britain. The Mail on Sunday dubbed her “a genius straight from the slums”. It was a fine line between vilification and fetishization, while audiences also seemingly loved being shocked by her zinging but expletive-filled dialogue.

There was gawping, too, at the fact that she was unmarried, had three kids by different men, and had written about losing a baby as a teenager. Some of the slathering was also surely down to her writing raucous and riotous (if ultimately troubling) scenes depicting young women’s sexual desires.

Then there was the boozing: her father was an alcoholic, and Dunbar became a heavy drinker. She smashed her face up so badly when drunk she needed 60 stitches; her daytime sessions derailed her writing, her finances, and her family life. As the film The Arbor showed, things became even bleaker after her death: Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine became a drug addict and prostitute, and was sent to prison for manslaughter after her child died consuming methadone.

So then, while it is brilliant that Dunbar is back in the public eye, is the emphasis falling too much on her tough life, rather than her art?

Dunbar’s own work was highly autobiographical – which adds justification for contemporary storytellers drawn to her messy existence. And I understand tragedy makes a good story. I originally started this piece with the body on the toilet floor. When talking about Dunbar, it is easy for your focus to be pulled to her body, not her body of work.

Certainly, none of these projects are engaged in the sneering prurience of 1980s tabloid coverage. Barnard’s The Arbor is masterful filmmaking; Stripe’s writing is never sensationalising, and I look forward to the play of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile – especially as Holdsworth’s adaptation is cleverly performed by a cast of all women, giving the voice to Dunbar and the women who supported her, not to the men that abused her. But perhaps we are we at risk of fetishizing the idea of the under-appreciated young working-class woman in our own way.

Holdsworth is keenly aware of that. “There is a danger – and maybe I’m part of that problem – that we become fixated on salacious details of her life,” she says. “But that’s certainly not what we’re trying to do in this play, we’re very much reflecting her artistic journey as well.”

Because she did have the art, as well as the life. Dunbar’s writing still crackles. It is urgent, unfiltered, unflinching – those words still stand – and it has a vicious wit and humour that should not be denied. But it also feels prescient, more problematic, perhaps, than it felt in the Eighties.

Dunbar was surprised by the audience’s howls at the Royal Court: for her it was real, not just comedy. The recent revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too – coloured by Stafford-Clark stepping down as director following accusations of inappropriate sexualised behaviour, and with its run first cancelled then reinstated at the Royal Court – arguably felt darker, considering our present moment.

The world has fallen in line with the way Dunbar saw her own writing: the happy ending of the film certainly seems abhorrent in a post-MeToo world.

“That play remains enormously relevant, to the point where you think Andrea was seeing something coming round the corner,” suggests Holdsworth. And she too dreams of hearing more from the author: how about a season at the National Theatre, a complete works, her plays on the GCSE syllabus…?

Why not just stage a revival of The Arbor or Shirley in Bradford then? The rights are held by Out of Joint, Stafford-Clark’s former company, which is protective, she says.

The plays are also currently out of print, which seems mad. I asked Out of Joint why they aren’t available. “We tried to get them published again about two years ago, and there was no interest from publishers,” replied executive producer Martin Derbyshire, adding that “they are rarely performed and little known. There may well be much more interest now, happily Andrea seems to be popular once again.” They will be approaching publishers again soon.

It’s heartening news. Because right now, if you want to get your hands on The Arbor or Shirley, a second-hand copy will cost you over a hundred quid online. What on earth would Dunbar make of that, I ask Holdsworth. “I think she’d find it absolutely hilarious,” she laughs.

‘Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile’ is on tour, 30 May to 30 June (; ‘Rita, Sue and Andrea Too’ is on Radio 4, 7 June.

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