Writer Andrea’s tough battle between life and art on stage

A Sheffield actress stars in a new drama about the young working-class Bradford woman who wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

By Julia Armstrong
Monday, 10 June, 2019, 16:05
Emily Spowage as Andrea Dunbar in Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

Emily Spowage plays the older Andrea Dunbar looking back on her short life in Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, adapted from Adelle Stripe’s novel.

Another Sheffield actress, Laura Lindsay, plays multiple roles.

The adaptation has been created by Lisa Holdsworth, writer for TV shows Ackley Bridge, Waterloo Road and Call the Midwife.

Andrea Dunbar grew up on a council estate in Bradford. Her first play, The Arbor, premiered at the Royal Court in London when she was just 18, and originated as a CSE English assignment.

Her 1982 play Rita, Sue and Bob Too was also a hit there and was filmed by the director Alan Clarke.

Andrea wrote one more play, Shirley, and died of a brain haemorrhage in 1990. She was 29.

Emily said: “It’s a fictionalised story, based on elements of truth.”

“It’s focusing on the things that helped to write and the things that hindered her, and the people that helped and hindered her – the women that supported her along the way and the men that did not,” she added.

“It’s a first-person narrative, interspersed with dramatised scenes. Her younger self appears before her and witnesses events that led up to here and now, which was 1990.”

Emily said that Andrea Dunbar's work was new to her: “Being from Sheffield, I wasn’t raised with the story of her as a local celebrity, like people from Bradford were.

“It’s one of the reasons Adelle Stripe wanted to write the book, she wanted to write a thesis at university and there was nothing about her anywhere.

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“It is a shame her plays are out of print. You can get Rita, Sue and Bob Too because it’s had a re-emergence. I was trying to do research and there was nothing, other than the novel and Rita, Sue and Bob Too.”

She eventually got a manuscript copy of Shirley but may have to sit in Bradford library to read The Arbor.

Emily said: “I hope that changes. Being a woman, being working class, these things are obstacles that make it very difficult to break through.”

Andrea had her troubles, said Emily: “The play is not exactly unflinching. It’s quite an honest take. She wasn’t perfect by any means.

“It’s about a real person, so there are many versions of events and many different perspectives. It’s told from her perspective: it’s not a hero we see but neither is it dragging her down at all.”

Emily said the play tries to show why Andrea used alcohol to cope with a difficult life.

Emily, who is from Bradway, started acting as a child, appearing at The Montgomery and at Sheffield Theatres. Her dad is singer Gary St John and she also performed with him.

She went to Sir Harold Jackson and Meadowhead Schools, then Northern College and studied drama in Manchester.

She hopes to return to Sheffield Theatres as a professional. “Then I’ll have come full circle,” she said.

See Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile on Friday (June 14) at St John’s Church Hall, Barnsley and at Shaw Lane Sports Club, Barnsley on June 25. Book at www.barnsleycivic.co.uk or call 01226 327000.

It’s also at Cast in Doncaster on June 20. Box office: wwwcastindoncaster.com or 01302 303959.