Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

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31 May 2019.

The Ambassador, Bradford.

That Andrea Dunbar’s life and work continue to fascinate is unsurprising. Even today, theatres aren’t exactly awash with the words of working-class women writers, and the lives and places that Dunbar chronicled remain a rare sight on stage.

In Adelle Stripe’s excellent fictionalized account of her life, Dunbar refers to her local boozer as an “unofficial office” and a “home from home” – and Lisa Holdsworth’s dramatisation begins and ends in that pub. Here amid the barstools, bottles and jukebox tunes, Andrea gazes back at her life, as she and her younger self piece together the journey from Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate to London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Holdsworth’s play appears to seamlessly incorporate archive material. From a bulging plastic bag full of papers, Andrea pulls out letters, a school essay, newspaper articles, legal documents, and even a school report. Each document serving as a fixed point in an increasingly chaotic life, but they also act as aides-memoire from which Andrea’s story will further unfold.

Creating a fictional work inspired by a person’s life can be fraught with difficulties. The script’s regular referencing of real-life detail, combined with the decision to have the central character double up as narrator, serves to steadily blur the line between fact and fiction. When another writer is appointed to work on her script for the film version of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’, the fictional Andrea rages “This is my story. Not yours. Not anybody else’s“. Within the context of a play about her life, it’s an uncomfortable moment.

However, there’s nothing sensational about the depiction of the extreme highs and lows of Dunbar’s life. As Andrea, Emily Spowage seems unsurprised by the dead-ends and disappointment she encounters, as if that was all she was raised to expect. It’s the success that she’s unprepared for. When it arrives, her choices still remain starkly limited and she feels trapped. “Either I write or I go back to the mill“.

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile celebrates Dunbar’s talent but it also highlights the women in her life, and the power of sisterly solidarity – her mother Alma’s constant support, the bond with her friend Eileen, and fellow writer Kay Mellor’s generosity.

By contrast, the men in Andrea’s life are “useless” and “all the bloody same“. Here their voices are nudged aside, with their roles inhabited by the five-strong cast of women actors – and their opinions, actions, and impacts are viewed almost entirely from a female perspective.

Toxic masculinity isn’t the sole preserve of the Buttershaw Estate and, as her career takes off, the male professionals that Andrea encounters are thoughtless, egotistical and controlling. Holdsworth’s script joyfully sinks its teeth into those men and the creative industries that they operate within. Max, the theatre director is flamboyant and foppish, while Alan the film-maker is exposed as a careless and cynical manipulator of the very underclass he claims to champion.

Andrea’s work is seen to be genuinely rooted in the places she knows and the lives she encounters. She keenly observes people or scribbles down snatches of conversation overheard from a toilet cubicle.

Freedom Studios specialise in bringing shows to non-theatre venues, and with help from vivid sound design, Kash Arshad’s lively production makes imaginative use of limited space. The wooden bar of Hannah Sibai’s wonderfully realistic pub becomes suddenly the dock of a court, the payphone in the corner briefly serves as a taxi control room, and characters flow out from behind the audience as well as the side of the stage.

Holdsworth’s nimble script has to compress an awful lot into ninety minutes, and at times it can be a bit of a blur. It’s most affecting when it lingers for a while longer, such as when Andrea articulates her heartfelt hopes for her soon-to-be-born daughter, or lets rip at a Q&A event about the difficulties she faces as a writer.

Beyond the specifics of one person’s life. The unique talent. A life cut short too soon. Something else sticks in the mind. Asked what advice she would give to young working-class writers, Andrea’s response is “Get a proper fucking job“.

Expensive trips down to London, lack of support, money worries, unhelpful working practices, not fitting in, and the fear of being discarded when the novelty wears off. Even the details of Dunbar’s endless struggle to be heard are still depressingly relevant after all these years.

Freedom Studios.

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile tours until 30 June (including performances in Oldham, Barnsley, Harrogate, Wakefield, Doncaster, and Leeds). 

Images by Tim Smith.

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