It is entirely appropriate we are in upstairs room of a Bradford pub for the world premiere of this new play based on Adelle Stripe’s fictionalised novel of the life of local playwright Andrea Dunbar as pub bogs were one of the places where that literary magpie picked up ideas for her work scribbling them down in her battered notebook.
The result was The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which remain two of the most authentic working class plays ever written, and we join Andrea - played by a magnificently world weary Emily Spowage - in her rundown local boozer, The Beacon, on the night of her death aged only 29.
As she looks back on her tough life growing up on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford she starts to talk to her younger self, and all the women who have tried to help her she took an unconventional route to literary greatness through teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, battles with the DHSS and being let down by a series of ‘useless men’. The creatives took the decision to exclude all those idiots, and the five strong female cast make the most of that bold choice.
Experienced TV writer Lisa Holdsworth has adapted Stripe’s evocative debut, and retained the real heart of it by refusing to make Andrea some sort of noble working class saint in the way a posh director like Ken Loach might have done. Instead Kash Arshad’s agile direction gets to the heart of a complex, troubled and brilliant woman, who as her best friend laughingly observes could ‘start a fight in a bloody graveyard.’
The incendiary interaction between older Andrea trying to rekindle the writing magic and a wonderfully gobby Lucy Hird as her teen self are raucous, funny, angry and tinged with regret at a whole host of missed opportunities. No-one escapes Andrea’s acid tongue, and Holdsworth’s pacey and punchy text doesn’t spare the playwright herself as she reflects on how both working class and middle class men have let down her in different ways.
Class warrior director Alan Clarke get a well-deserved kicking for the grotesque ending of his movie version of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ as she tells him that based on her own hard won experiences the two young women would never, ever have gone back to Bob, who should have been left with nowt as he was in her play.
Hannah Sibai’s design provides a suitably dingy backdrop as Clare Marie Seddon, Laura Lindsay and Balvinder Sopal skilfully circle round the sparring Andreas as they rage against each other’s bad choices playing the different women who try to guide the wilful playwright. Seddon’s lively turn as best friend Eileen is worth the admission price alone, and Lindsay offers a sympathetic Kay Mellor, drafted in as another working class writer to break Andrea’s writers block as she tackles her first TV drama.
There has been some local controversy as Andrea’s family have questioned why this play is being put on, and Freedom Studios who commissioned this work make it clear it is a work of fiction and an alternative version of history, but Holdsworth as a writer from a working class background has crafted a work that can sit as a companion piece to Andrea’s own gritty output. You are left with the feeling that this brutally honest and beautifully written work, performed by a cast who really get it, would have had Andrea raising a glass to them in The Beacon.
Black Teeth and A Brilliant Smile tours till 30th June. To book https://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/production/black-teeth-and-a-brilliant-smile/
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 3rd June 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★