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Andrea Dunbar was something of a child prodigy growing up on the underprivileged Buttershaw Estate in Bradford. Dunbar wrote her first play The Arbor, (named after the street on which she lived Brafferton Arbor,) at the tender age of 15. The play, which debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in 1980, depicts the turbulent life of pregnant teenager with a father who is an abusive alcoholic. In 1982 Dunbar wrote the follow up Rita, Sue and Bob Too! which was later turned into a film by the director Alan Clarke. By 1990, at just 29 years old, Andrea Dunbar was dead, killed by an apparent brain haemorrhage the talented author left behind three young children. Artist and filmmaker Clio Barnard's new biopic, also entitled The Arbor, attempts not only to tell Andrea's story but also that of her eldest daughter Lorraine, who was imprisoned in 2007 for the manslaughter of her son Harris.
A drama/documentary in the truest, and perhaps newest, sense of the phrase The Arbor utilizes archive footage culled from television documentaries such as Arena and Look North, an original technique where actors lip-sync to the voices of the real life participants in Dunbar's troubled life and impromptu performances of the author's work taking place on the Buttershaw Estate. Theoretically speaking this multi-layered approach sounds as if it might be somewhat confusing and imprecise in practice however it is a revelation being both innovative and inspiring. With a shifting timeframe and multiple story telling techniques the resulting film not only offers a detailed insight into the lives of Andrea Dunbar and her daughter Lorraine but also into that whole section society recently dubbed 'Broken Britain.' The film begins in the present day with Dunbar's two daughters Lorraine (Manjinder Virk) and Lisa (Christine Bottomley) telling of their childhood and formative years. These scenes, in which the actors address the camera and lip-sync their speech to actual voices of the people they are portraying are carried off with remarkable accuracy and have a haunting quality to them. It is as if the actors are channelling those involved from another time and place with a story yet to be told. The voices of the interviewees are filled with regret rather than anger at wasted opportunities and what might have been, there is also a great deal of understanding at the circumstances and pressures each of them have faced in the past.
Life has been particularly difficult for eldest daughter Lorraine growing up as a mixed-race child a predominately white estate she was racially abused on a daily basis for having a Pakistani father. Just 10 years old when her mother passed away Lorraine would later turn to prostitution to feed her drug habit. As her life quickly spiralled out of control she fell pregnant by one of her clients and struggled to bring up her child.
The documentary footage of Andrea Dunbar shows the author at home on the Buttershaw Estate where she continued to live until her untimely death. The semi-biographical nature of Dunbar's writing is obvious in the remarkable similarity between her own family and the characters of her creation. Given the present day world of celebrity these scenes, (in which fame appears to have been foisted upon an unassuming talent,) are reminiscent of the countless reality TV stars that are ill-prepared for the spotlight.
The scenes in which parts of Dunbar's plays that are acted out on the estate are excellent giving off the urgency and realism of the writing. As the current residents loiter in the background Natalie Gavin who plays the young Andrea enthusiastically explains her work to the camera before launching into another energetic performance.
At the conclusion of The Arbor Lorraine, who has now released from prison after serving 3 years for the manslaughter of her son, tells us that her life reflects many inhabitants of the Buttershaw Estate. Where once the social problems were those of unemployment, poverty and alcoholism the estate has deteriorated further becoming a ghetto of drug dealing, crime and disorder. Lorraine tells us that if her mother were to write Rita Sue and Bob Too! in the present day, "Rita and Sue would be smackheads." The lasting influence of Andrea Dunbar's writing can be found in modern British film and television not least in the television drama Shameless which depicts life on the Chatsworth Estate with a similar combination of bawdy humour and satirical knowingness. The Arbor's unusual but innovative approach to drama/documentary uncovers, like Dunbar's plays, the hardship and problems which lie at the heart of working-class Britain, (albeit in a completely different manner.) Exploring the life of a significant contributor to British working-class fiction The Arbor like Andrea Dunbar herself is too authentic and insightful to ignore.
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