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Interview ‘It felt like it was time for her to speak for herself’

LISA HOLDSWORTH tells Neil Mudd why she wants to dispel some of the myths surrounding writer Andrea Dunbar in her new play

YOU wait ages for a Lisa Holdsworth play about Andrea Dunbar to come along, then two come at once. Her stage version of Adelle Stripe’s novel about the writer, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, opens in Bradford later this month.

It follows Unsung, an ensemble piece about inspirational but under-imagined women. The screenwriter and playwright worked on it for over two years, persuaded by Alice Barber and Elvi Piper – “fresh-faced new voices in theatre in Leeds,” according to Holdsworth — to develop a play featuring real-life women selected by members of the cast.

Buttershaw actress Kat Rose-Martin chose Dunbar, whose gritty 1982 comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too, based on the Yorkshire housing estate where she lived, brought her great acclaim.  A young writer of huge promise, she tragically died of a brain haemorrhage in 1990 at the age of 29.

While finishing Unsung, Holdsworth was invited to adapt Stripe’s book for the stage by Bradford’s Freedom Studios.

“It’s one of those weird synergy moments,” she says. “It might feel as if there is a massive crossover but there isn’t. Unsung is a much more esoteric piece. With Rita, Sue and Bob Too on tour, Andrea is having a resurgence, which I think is fantastic.”

Stripe’s novel begins with Dunbar’s last day. She had collapsed in her local pub the Beacon in Buttershaw but Holdsworth is angered by critic Christopher Hart’s dismissive remark that the playwright drank herself to death —  “that’s not what killed her” — and says that his comment stems from a “desire to shove her into some sort of Dickensian fantasy of what this woman, who was brilliant, lived like.

“Her death is tragic, such a waste of potential. I find it heart-breaking.”

Holdsworth’s play begins with the death too but says there is still joy and humour in the work — “All the stuff I don’t think people with a certain narrative about the working class in the north understand. The thing about [Stripe’s] book is what do you leave out? It’s incredibly compelling.”

She wrote a very long draft and worked with Freedom about what they wanted theatrically. “We’ve upped the fun. We’ve upped the irreverence of it because I think that’s certainly what Andrea would have wanted.”

This version was sent to Stripe, a “nerve-wracking” experience says Holdsworth: “This is a woman who has talked to the family; she knows what is true, what is sensitive and what they’d want people to understand about Andrea.

“The book is an incredibly helpful guiding map but Adelle has been generous enough to allow me to make the story my own.”

The decision to use an all-female cast came early on, as did having two Andrea Dunbars – one younger, one older – onstage. “A lot of men have had their say, and continue to have their say, on Andrea and her life.

“It just felt like it was time for her to speak for herself, be a witness to her own life, and probably be more of a reliable narrator than some of the men would have been.”

The genuine strength of Stripe’s book is that she refuses to sugar the pill. Dunbar’s life is presented in all its rawness and brutal intensity. Nearly 30 years after the playwright’s death, does Holdsworth still feel there is an appetite for such realism?

“What people like to see, and it is a reflection of the truth, is that life goes on. People do still care about each other. News coverage of poverty is all about misery. There’s no sense of the enormous spirit amongst people to carry on, have their kids, live their lives.”

“The Daily Mail gets all vexed because somebody on benefits has got a mobile phone. It does come from Thatcher, that looking down on people, asking whether they’ve earned what they’ve got.

“Audiences like to be reminded how wonderfully diverse people in reduced circumstances can be — how they’ve got dreams and aspirations and how they feel joy.”

Dunbar would agree. She wrote about what she knew. She wrote about dark times but she did it with a brilliant smile on her face.

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile runs from May 30-June 8 at The Ambassador, Sunbridge Road, Bradford and then tours venues in Yorkshire and Lancashire until June 30, details: freedomstudios.co.uk.

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