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.
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.”
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.