“She never compromised.” Writer Lisa Holdsworth on Andrea Dunbar, Adelle Stripe and a new play
So, here’s the thing. A brand-new stage project has drawn together three acclaimed female writers from Yorkshire. Firstly, there’s Andrea Dunbar, who blind-sided the theatre world during the 80s with her remarkable plays, not least Rita Sue and Bob Too, before dying of a brain haemorrhage at the tragically young age of 29. Then there’s Adelle Stripe, whose 2017 debut novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile fictionalised Dunbar’s real-life story with runaway success. Finally there’s Lisa Holdsworth, best known for her work on TV shows such as Waterloo Road, New Tricks and Call the Midwife, who has now adapted Stripe’s novel for the stage. A project which involves representing the work of not one but two other writers. No pressure there, then.
“Oh god no, no, no,” Holdsworth laughs. “Not a massive responsibility at all…”
Holdsworth went to school in Pudsey in Leeds, and it was there that she first became aware of the work of Andrea Dunbar. “It was probably a grubby VHS of a Channel 4 showing of Rita Sue and Bob Too [the film version of the play made by director Alan Clarke in 1987]. It was a fairly notorious film because it was shot near us and it had Yorkshire accents in it. Because it had sex and swearing and drinking and all that stuff in it, it was a film that, at the age of 13 or 14 we probably shouldn’t have seen, but we all had. Quotes from the film were shouted across the playground.”
That’s a highly impressionable age, of course, and Holdsworth admits that Dunbar’s screenplay could have been an early inspiration. “I think probably without realising it, yes – the idea that you could put people on-screen or on stage who you felt you knew, who you were getting the bus with on a morning. Because I think, at the time certainly, British cinema was very rarefied. It was all your Merchant Ivory stuff. I mean, it still is – Downton Abbey comes out soon. But the idea that someone who looked like you and sounded like you could have a story that people were interested in – yeah, that was inspirational.”
The Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile play, like the novel, is anchored in Bradford in December 1990 during the last day of Dunbar’s life. At that time, Holdsworth was just about to leave school over in Leeds. “That feeling of it ringing true and feeling right was definitely big part of the writing process. It feels very familiar territory. Where I grew up was a former council estate. In 1990, I very aware of that heady time of teenage life which I think forms a big part of the play.”
Aside from her TV work, Holdsworth is a champion of local theatre companies. It was while running an ‘Introduction to Playwriting’ course for Bradford’s Freedom Studios that she became aware of their plans to adapt Adelle Stripe’s novel for the stage. Freedom approached Holdsworth to write it, and she found herself pitching to Stripe. “I pitch for TV shows all the time, but I’ve never pitched for theatre. Usually I just write it and hope for the best, but even from the very beginning, Adelle wanted to make sure she was happy with the way I was going to go about it. So, I wrote a pitch document early on and we had a long talk about it. Then it was all systems go.”
Writing the adaptation seems to have been a relatively easy process.
“To be honest with you, because Adelle’s such an incredible writer and because her research is impeccable, even though this is very much a fictionalised account of Andrea’s life, she’s made my job very easy. The big difficulty was deciding what to leave out. The novel has this epic scale but is incredibly intimate which is why, even when I first heard that Freedom wanted to adapt it for the stage, there was part of me that went ‘I’m not sure how that’s going to work’. Actually, the fact that Adelle has brought out such intimacy in the characters, such inner monologue from Andrea, has made it a dream to write. It was just about cherry-picking the really good stuff – not necessarily the juicy stuff, but the emotional stuff, the illustrative stuff about Andrea’s life.”
Dunbar’s life was certainly tumultuous. Her father was an alcoholic and she first became pregnant at the age of 15. The baby was stillborn, but she went on to have three children, each one by a different father. Living in a Women’s Aid refuge as a single mother, she began drinking heavily. At the same time, her bold, hard-hitting plays were winning her a legion of admirers from the stage of the Royal Court.
Holdsworth admits that hitting the right voice for the character of Dunbar was difficult, but says: “Once you do get it, though: wow. That woman had the most incredible voice, the most clear, the most original voice. It reminded me why she was such a sensation at the time, because she never compromised. That voice always came through and, having been a writer for 20 years, I know how difficult that can be.”
Holdsworth promises that the Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile play is “funny, emotional and irreverent. It’s brutally honest but it’s entertaining. It’s someone’s life packed into an hour and a half, so it never lets up.” It will premiere with a run of dates at The Ambassador, a pub and former social club in city centre Bradford.
“That’s deliberate,” Holdsworth says. “That was something we wanted to do from the start, to do it in a non-theatre space. I’ve got a 20-year writing career and I still find theatres intimidating and uncomfortable and structured. So, we do it in a pub where you can get a drink, sit down and then this play will basically break out around you. It will not be the theatre experience that people are scared of. It’ll be a theatre experience that’ll hopefully invigorate you.”
Many of the dates have already sold out and it seems that Bradford is beginning to embrace the legacy of Dunbar and her talent. It wasn’t always the case, though. During her lifetime, she often faced the fury of the local community for the brutally honest way that she depicted them.
“She still raises people’s hackles in Bradford,” Holdsworth says. “People feel very uncomfortable when the mirror is turned on them. I had a massive argument with a friend I went to school with who thought it was terrible how Rita Sue and Bob Too represented Bradford, whereas, I think maybe from a position of privilege, I was excited by it and I loved the rawness of it. But she’s still a writer that can cause debate.”
“I really, really hope so. There is a blue plaque for her where she grew up in Buttershaw, but it would be lovely if there was something in Bradford city centre. In the 80s there was this famous phrase ‘Bradford is Bouncing Back’. Well, spoiler, it didn’t particularly at that time, so I can understand that nervousness back then. Speaking as someone from Leeds I’d say there’s an aspect to West Yorkshire life of putting a veneer on things. You know, we don’t keep coal in the bath any more or have a whippet, all that kind of thing. We have a chip on our shoulder about how people outside of the region perceive us. That doesn’t mean that when someone does hold the mirror up to us, we shouldn’t listen and we shouldn’t watch. I think Andrea was a victim of that back in the day. Now, with a little bit of time, a little bit of calm, we can accept that what was going on in Bradford and West Yorkshire in the 80s was vibrant and interesting, but it was also people living in poverty, people in dodgy relationships, women weren’t getting a fair crack at the whip. That’s absolutely what Andrea was reflecting in her work.”
As far as women getting a fair crack of the whip is concerned, this production boasts an all-female cast, which Holdsworth says was an easy, organic decision. “In Adelle’s book the female voices are the strong ones to begin with and the reality is I didn’t want to put the abuse that Andrea suffered up on the stage. It is well documented that her father was a drunk, it is well documented that she was in physically violent relationships. We know that, there was no need to dramatize it for titillation or sensation. What I wanted to concentrate on was her struggle to write, the women who were there for her, the extraordinary flips and coincidences that got her work up on stage.”
“I’m so lucky that I’m living in West Yorkshire at a time when we have this booming fringe theatre scene which is based on kindness and inclusion and people’s voices coming through. It is very exciting here at the moment and I wish Andrea had been around to be part of that. I think she’d have been producing other people’s work, she’d have been talking to other writers. But the fact that she had to keep travelling to London, where she always felt like an outsider, where she always felt uncomfortable, probably didn’t help. If there had been producing theatres in the region at the time who were interested in her work, then I think she would have found her niche. You know, a 60p bus ride into Bradford is much better than getting on a train and going down to King’s Cross. I speak from experience.”
Main image: Lisa Holdsworth ® Tom Woollard Freedom Studios, Beacon Pub, Bradford.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, adapted by Lisa Holdsworth from Adelle’s Stripe’s novel, opened at The Ambassador in Bradford on May 30 and tours various venues throughout June.
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