Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

Lisa Holdsworth, adapted from the novel by Adelle Stripe
Freedom Studios
Ambassador, Bradford

Emily Spowage (Andrea Dunbar), Lucy Hird (Young Andrea), Claire-Marie Seddon (Elaine) and Balvinder Sopal Credit: Tim Smith
Emily Spowage (Andrea Dunbar) and Lucy Hird (Young Andrea) Credit: Tim Smith
Lucy Hird (Young Andrea) and Laura Lindsay (Alma) Credit: Tim Smith

Adapted from Adelle Stripe’s acclaimed 2017 novel, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile offers a fictionalised account of playwright Andrea Dunbar’s short but tumultuous life.

This production, written by Lisa Holdsworth, has been the focus of some controversy over the last week, with Dunbar’s children claiming that it focuses too much on the “salacious details of her life” rather than her body of work. Although Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile presents itself as an “alternative version of historic events”, this is not a sensationalised retelling of Dunbar’s story. While the play does not shy away from the more hard-hitting aspects of her life (teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, alcoholism), it is centrally concerned with her complicated relationship with writing.

Like the novel, the play begins and ends on the night Dunbar (Emily Spowage) died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29 whilst drinking in her local pub, The Beacon. As she reminisces about the past, she is approached by her younger self (Lucy Hird), who insolently asks for a cigarette. From this point onwards, we are plunged into her memories.

Over the course of the play, we watch Dunbar discover her talent for writing, eventually leading her to the Royal Court where her first play, The Arbor, would be staged when she was only 18 years old. Her next work, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, would be even more successful, resulting in a hit film adaptation that Dunbar loathed.

However, despite her success, Dunbar becomes increasingly frustrated with the media attention she receives. Her semi-autobiographical plays—which grapple with taboo subjects such as underage sex—expose both her and her loved ones to intense public scrutiny. Over time, she loses her interest in writing and struggles to get her work staged—even Max Stafford-Clark, the man who first brought her to the Royal Court, begins to lose interest.

A synopsis of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile doesn’t do justice to its warmth, compassion and wit. Dunbar may have led a difficult and even tragic life, but Holdsworth’s play celebrates both her talent and strength of character. This adaptation is lively, engaging and packs one hell of a punch.

The action of the play takes place entirely in The Beacon pub, which reminds us of Dunbar’s inescapable attachment to the Buttershaw estate in Bradford—the location that would ultimately define her writing. Hannah Sibai’s set design is beautifully realised and Kash Arshad’s sure-footed direction makes effective use of the limited space.

The five female performers are terrific. Emily Spowage excels as the mature Dunbar, skilfully capturing her world-weariness and simmering anger. Her impersonations of the male characters are often amusing, with her outlandish take on Max Stafford-Clark being a particular highlight. Lucy Hird is equally strong as the young Dunbar and she forms a formidable double-act with Claire-Marie Seddon (also excellent), who plays her best friend, Eileen. Laura Lindsay and Balvinder Sopal also impress in a series of supporting roles.

This is the strongest show I’ve seen yet from Bradford-based company Freedom Studios, which specialises in site-specific productions. All Bradford dates have now sold out, but you can still catch the play as it tours around Yorkshire.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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