BWW Review: BLACK TEETH AND A BRILLIANT SMILE, The Ambassador Bradford
Andrea Dunbar was a young, defiant writing talent and an outspoken working-class Northern voice.
The youngest playwright to have a play performed at London's Royal Court, the autobiographical elements of the three plays she wrote in her short lifetime - The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Shirley - were a window into her own experiences growing up on Bradford's severely deprived Buttershaw estate.
Adapted by Freedom Studios from Adelle Stripe's critically acclaimed novel of the same name, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is a fictionalised account of Dunbar's brief but turbulent life. Adapted by screenwriter Lisa Holdsworth and directed by Kash Arshad, the play is performed by an entirely female cast who take on the many characters - some real, some fictionalised - that populated Dunbar's world.
The play's opening performances are taking place in the upstairs bar of Bradford's Ambassador pub, a venue which seems fitting given much of Dunbar's final years were spent at her own local, the Beacon. The audience gathers on chairs and bar stools around the small stage, itself set with a small collection of stools, a bar and a real jukebox which provides much of the play's 80s-led soundtrack.
Dunbar is played by both Emily Spowage and Lucy Hird, who embody the playwright in her latter and younger years respectively, and are supported by Laura Lindsay, Claire Marie and Balvinder Sopal in a host of other roles.
Spowage opens the play as Dunbar in her final years - frazzled, tired, likely depressed, but not without the fierceness and humour that characterised her plays. When Hird and Marie enter as a teenage Dunbar and her best friend Eileen, they are instantly recognisable as the bolshy teenage girls that anyone who has grown up in Britain will have seen a thousand times.
What stands out about these performances is how strikingly fully realised they are. They are full of light and shade, and Spowager in particular outstandingly emotes Dunbar's struggles towards the end of her life with such realism that at times it felt almost uncomfortable to be witnessing something so personal. This is also a testament to the three writers who shaped this piece; Holdsworth, Stripe and of course Dunbar herself.
The play moves through Dunbar's life via a series of vignette-like scenes that are framed by and interspersed with scenes featuring the older version of Dunbar. It touches on her miscarriage and the subsequent writing of her first play at just 15, her friendships, relationships, struggles with fame and alienation from her community. It is fast-paced and tightly executed, despite the small space the company have to work with, and never feels hard to follow.
Sound designer Karen Lauke's well-chosen soundtrack and Hannah Sibai's design gives the play a distinctly 80s feel, and neatly integrated ambient sound is surprisingly effective at creating a sense of life and location outside the pub set.
It is worth noting that the play has received criticism from members of Dunbar's family. However, Freedom Studios make it clear that Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is a fictionalised version of events, one that has been "manipulated, restructured and embellished".
If we can separate the play from the realities of Andrea Dunbar's life, audiences will find a deeply human celebration of a young, female, regional, working-class voice who was important not in spite of, but because of, the life she led and the place she came from.
Looking around before the play began, I was struck by how much more diverse the audience was in comparison to most of the plays I have seen in traditional theatre settings. This production succeeds not only because it is brilliantly performed and full of life, but because it speaks to a tradition of storytelling in community spaces that is particularly strong in regional theatre, and champions vibrant marginalised voices with the candidness that epitomised Dunbar's own work.
Photo credit: Tim Smith