The playwright Andrea Dunbar – best known for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the basis for the 1987 film – died in 1990, aged 29, of a brain haemorrhage in her favourite Bradford pub, the Beacon. Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, adapted by Lisa Holdsworth from Adelle Stripe’s bittersweet 2017 novel, drops us straight into her final moments, just before her potential was cut short.
Kash Arshad’s staging is appropriately poignant. The play, made up of flashbacks to events in Dunbar’s life, is set within a generic version of the Beacon. In this way, Arshad brings everything that occurs back to yet another drink. It’s a neat device that shows the destructive cycle in which Dunbar found herself trapped, and demonstrates how her world was limited by poverty and social oppression. Hannah Sibai’s set design, accentuated by Keilidh Whyte’s lighting, is so detailed and realistic that it may take a minute to locate the pub theatre’s real bar.
The play dispenses almost entirely with the male characters, honing in on the things that were most meaningful in Dunbar’s life. Emily Spowage’s portrayal of the adult Dunbar is uncannily accurate. And, as she also plays the various men that Dunbar encounters, she’s able to show how she viewed them, from her violent ex-partner to a camp send-up of Royal Court artistic director Max Stafford-Clark.
The rest of the all-female cast works hard across roles. There are strong performances from Lucy Hird, as the young Dunbar, and Claire-Marie Seddon, as her pal Eileen, played across ages with a wicked laugh.
With so much to pack into 90 minutes, some aspects of her story lack the room they need to breathe. The play would actually benefit from being longer; the action is too concertinaed and this ultimately reduces its impact.
Dunbar’s first-hand experience of life on Bradford’s deprived Buttershaw estate, one of her inspirations as a writer, was fetishised by the press. She was described as “a genius straight from the slums”, as if it was beyond the realms of the imagination that a single mum of three in Thatcher’s Britain could write anything good enough for the Royal Court stage.
Dunbar’s surviving children have criticised the play as being comparably “salacious” in its picking over of her difficult life. Yet, Dunbar does not emerge from Stripe’s fictionalisation as a victim, but as a clever, unhappy woman who deserved better.
The play is a relevant and emotive caution against the one-size-fits-all approach of the privileged theatre industry. Despite Dunbar being hailed as the autodidact working-class genius of a generation, only one of her three plays remain in print – suggesting that many of the obstacles she faced are yet to be overcome.