Writer: Lisa Holdsworth
From the novel by: Adelle Stripe
Director: Kash Arshad
Designer: Hannah Sibai
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Bradford’s Freedom Studios have a distinguished record of site-specific productions in the city, from Drummonds Mill to the Interchange. Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile doesn’t quite fall into the category, as it soon takes off on an extended tour of pubs, clubs, village halls and the occasional theatre, mostly in Yorkshire. However, the first week’s performances are at a venue that is a perfect site for the story of Andrea Dunbar’s life.
The play does not profess to be biographically accurate, being based on Adelle Stripe’s fictionalized account, “an alternative version of historic events”, as the playscript puts it. However, the main facts appear to be in order. Andrea Dunbar was the phenomenally talented playwright from Bradford’s Buttershaw estate who wrote her first play, The Arbor, while at school. From this, she moved on to Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, which also became a successful film.
However, both her private life and her continuing writing career were, to say the least, troubled: first pregnancy at 15, three children by different fathers, time spent in a women’s refuge, loss of dramatic inspiration, fall-outs over the importation of different writers into the Rita, Sue film, continuing poverty and growing dependency on alcohol. All these are in the play. It’s impossible to say whether the portrait of Andrea is accurate, but it is dramatically convincing.
Andrea Dunbar died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29 at Christmas-time 1990 after collapsing in the Beacon pub in Buttershaw. Lisa Holdsworth’s play focuses on that. At the beginning, she comes into the pub in search of both a drink and some pills for a violent headache. An hour and a half later, after a tour through her life, the ambulance sirens sound.
The Ambassador itself adds to the sense of realism imparted by the script and Kash Arshad’s direction, which are both unfussy, direct and economical. Entering the upstairs room of the Ambassador, the audience is confronted by a bar at each end, with a medley of stools, chairs and settees in between. One bar is in the Ambassador in 2019, the other is in the Beacon on 1990, complete with Christmas decorations. It is as though the audience has been dropped into Andrea Dunbar’s world.
Holdsworth’s technique is to cast Andrea with two actors. 29-year-old Andrea interrogates her young self, discusses details of her story, takes on characters that young Andrea comes in contact with. As the play moves through her life, young Andrea appears less and less, as the mature and disillusioned Andrea takes over.
Emily Spowage plays Andrea for the most part with a sort of subdued, almost ironic intensity, until her fury bursts out later in the play. Among her cameo parts a brutal, but very funny, take on an immensely theatrical Max Stafford-Clark, director of the Royal Court, stands out. Another well-known name in the theatre, Kay Mellor, gets much kinder treatment, in a sympathetic performance by Laura Lindsay.
Lucy Hird’s intelligent, but uncontrolled, wild child of a Young Andrea is always striking, especially in combination with Claire-Marie Seddon’s Elaine, the two of them a bit too close to Rita and Sue for comfort. Lindsay, Seddon and Balvinder Sopal, rather good at the posh bits, excel in a medley of small parts.
Already there has been a complaint from a family member that this is not a true depiction of Andrea Dunbar. Quite possibly so – to quote the playscript again, it “exists purely within the realms of speculation” – but the tension between Dunbar’s art and her life is nothing new. As the play makes clear, many of the people on the Buttershaw estate were less than delighted to see themselves as others saw them on stage or film.
Unfortunately – or, from a different viewpoint, satisfyingly – it is likely to be impossible now to book for Black Teeth at its perfect venue, the Ambassador, where it has already sold out. But it will not lack impact in your local hall or club.
Runs at the Ambassador until June 8, 2019, then touring the North of
England | Image: Tim Smith