Courtesy of Royal Court Theatre

Andrea Dun­bar lives on through a con­tem­po­rary adaptation

The unflinching Bradford playwright was overlooked during her lifetime. Now The Face speaks to the Northern writers keeping her spirit alive.

Andrea Dun­bar was a one-off. A teenage writ­ing sen­sa­tion from the But­ter­shaw estate in Brad­ford, she was the youngest play­wright to ever have her work staged at the Roy­al Court in Lon­don. She defied stag­ger­ing odds of class and gen­der to become one of the bright­est drama­tists of the 1980s.

Dunbar’s life end­ed when she was 29. She died in 1990 from a brain haem­or­rhage in her local pub The Bea­con, where she used to write. She has not been giv­en her prop­er due since. Her scripts are hard to come by (only one of her three plays has recent­ly been reprint­ed); there is no offi­cial archive of her work or a memo­r­i­al in her native city. 

But Dunbar’s work is in the midst of a major revival. Her most famous play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too – a sex com­e­dy about two teenag­er girls get­ting off with an old­er mar­ried man – was back at the Roy­al Court last year. The film adap­ta­tion, first released in 1986 and taglined Thatcher’s Britain with her knick­ers down’, has been recent­ly restored by the BFI

Inter­est in Dun­bar her­self has also inten­si­fied. Clio Barnard made a doc­u­men­tary in 2010, chart­ing the playwright’s intense famil­ial and cre­ative dra­ma, which con­tin­ued long after her death. A new Radio 4 dra­ma on the late play­wright airs this week. Adelle Stripe’s nov­el from 2017, Black Teeth and a Bril­liant Smile, imag­ined Dunbar’s life in all its bold, work­ing-class vital­i­ty. Now Black Teeth, adapt­ed for the stage, is on tour in York­shire pubs and work­ing men’s clubs. 

Playwright Lisa Holdsworth outside the Beacon Pub in Bradford.

The stag­ing – an 80s pub with­in a real one – is part­ly because the sto­ry begins on the last day of Dunbar’s life, from which she looks back. It’s almost a fever dream of her remem­ber­ing the ups and downs of her life,” says Leeds based writer Lisa Holdsworth, who adapt­ed the nov­el. And the pub felt like a real­ly great place to stage it. It’s where Andrea was com­fort­able. And it’s a non-inti­mat­ing space for peo­ple who may be ner­vous about set­ting foot in a big theatre.”

Dunbar’s work was acces­si­ble. She wrote about work­ing-class lives with bru­tal hon­esty, leav­ened with humour. She was not uni­ver­sal­ly under­stood. In 1982, The Mail on Sun­day declared Dun­bar a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a bril­liant smile”. At home, not every­one was best pleased. Dunbar’s work exposed the pover­ty and inequal­i­ty of life on Bradford’s mar­gins. Sto­ries of domes­tic vio­lence and sex­u­al harass­ment, drawn from the playwright’s life, depict­ed men as feck­less and abu­sive. As a result, the new pro­duc­tion has an all-female cast; men writ­ten out of Dunbar’s sto­ry completely.

Thir­ty years on, Black Teeth is a major hit. So why are peo­ple still inter­est­ed in hear­ing Dunbar’s voice? It’s that sto­ry of some­one going against the odds and get­ting their voice heard,” says Holdsworth, who dis­cov­ered the play­wright when a teenag­er her­self. The idea that some­one can break through, have their voice heard, some­one from the North par­tic­u­lar­ly. It gives peo­ple hope, actually.”

Dunbar’s tal­ent was dis­cov­ered by chance, first by a school teacher then work­ers at a Women’s Aid refuge – where Dun­bar had fled from an abu­sive boyfriend – passed her first script on to the­atre con­nec­tions. She’d writ­ten The Arbor at 15, in green biro on pages ripped out of an exer­cise copybook.

Luck remains a big part of get­ting heard if you are a work­ing-class woman like Dun­bar. There is a seri­ous prob­lem with work­ing-class rep­re­sen­ta­tion on writ­ing teams,” says Holdsworth, who is deputy chair of the Writ­ers’ Guild. Recent research found under a fifth of writ­ers in film and TV were women. GCSE and A Lev­el dra­ma are in steep decline. Breaks in the indus­try neces­si­tate a leg up, con­nec­tions and a finan­cial safe­ty net. Fail­ure is cur­rent­ly a fash­ion­able talk­ing point, but less so the fact that only some can afford to fail.

So what’s it like now when, like Dun­bar, you don’t have all those things? Kat Rose-Mar­tin is a 26-year-old actor and play­wright from Brad­ford. She grew up in Wib­sey, a stone’s throw away from But­ter­shaw and went to the same school as Dun­bar. I always said I want­ed to do what they do on tel­ly and I was told a lot I should be a hair­dress­er,” she says, down the line from home. Every­one told me that’s not real­ly the sort of thing for some­one like you.”

At 15, Rose-Mar­tin dis­cov­ered Dun­bar work. It proved inspi­ra­tional. I didn’t real­ly see peo­ple like me in the the­atre or on screen but I read Andrea’s work and thought this is real­ly very me, it feels like me. It felt like there was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for some­one like me to be in that world.”

Listen now: Kat Rose-Martin on opportunities in the industry

Through some amount of graft and a lot of oth­er jobs to keep her going, Rose-Mar­tin has got there. She grad­u­at­ed dra­ma school in Lon­don, starred in a pro­duc­tion of Two Noble Kins­man at Shakespeare’s Globe and is now work­ing on scripts her­self, her devel­op­ment sup­port­ed by a num­ber of north­ern pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies. Even now I still think it’s hard for some­one of my back­ground to do it, because the routes in are so hard,” she says. They always require you to have mon­ey behind you so I’ve always had a job con­sis­tent­ly even when I’m work­ing in the theatre.”

Oth­er obsta­cles remain. In her time, Dun­bar was paint­ed as part of an unseem­ly under­class; Rose-Mar­tin says she still gets mocked with­in the indus­try for her Brad­ford accent. Once peo­ple hear your voice, they assume you’re thick,” she argues. On the debut of Dunbar’s play The Arbor, one crit­ic wrote that the lan­guage and sub­stance of the play were as remote as a piece of anthro­pol­o­gy”. Rose-Mar­tin has faced sim­i­lar cri­tiques, which show lit­tle under­stand­ing of the world she writes about and where she still lives. It’s about fig­ur­ing out, are you scru­ti­n­is­ing my work or my world?” Rose-Mar­tin says. I’m hap­py to take scruti­ny of my work but don’t scru­ti­nise my world. Andrea had the exact same thing. Peo­ple were like, peo­ple don’t live like that. She were like, they do. We do. I do.”

There are ini­tia­tives to get these new voic­es heard, like The Andrea Project, a scheme named after Dun­bar, and aimed at find­ing young writ­ers from mar­gin­alised com­mu­ni­ties in the UK. Black Teeth has a diverse cast and crew drawn from the local area. The Chan­nel 4 head­quar­ters move to Leeds in 2020 is seen as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for more region­al voic­es to be heard.

Dun­bar was an out­lier, who gave writ­ers like Holdsworth and Rose-Mar­tin a sense that suc­cess was pos­si­ble. The hope is that she – and they – can be that exam­ple again. It’s about giv­ing peo­ple con­fi­dence from a very ear­ly age that they can have own­er­ship of their cre­ative life and their voice is just as valid as any­one else’s,” says Holdsworth. It doesn’t mat­ter whether you have four degrees from Cam­bridge, it mat­ters that you have tal­ent. I saw Andrea’s work and thought, that voice is valid. Look how fun­ny peo­ple think she is. Look how it’s stood the test of time.”

Black Teeth and a Bril­liant Smile is on tour through­out June. Find more info here.

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