“Andrea is not God. She must come to terms with this.” Or at least this is what her Religious Studies teacher put on Andrea Dunbar’s school report. That same school report shows her failing in most subjects except English, where she got an A.
She might not have been God but there was something miraculous about what she was able to achieve. Andrea, from the rough Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, with an even rougher home life. A schoolgirl who wrote her first play, The Arbor, in green biro on pages ripped from school exercise book at fifteen. Andrea was eighteen when the play found its way into the hands of director Max Stafford-Clarke and she became the youngest person ever to have a play produced at the Royal Court Theatre. By this time she had a baby and had been living in a women’s refuge for victims of domestic violence. She’d never been in a theatre or to London before and the first time she did was to assist at rehearsals of her own play. It was first performed in 1980 and went on to be produced in New York too. Andrea, writing about her own life, her own estate, had taken Bradford, the Buttershaw Estate and her own story all the way to New York.
People called Andrea a prodigy but that didn’t mean she wasn’t still struggling. She didn’t get paid much for The Arbor and stayed on the Buttershaw Estate trying to write around a turbulent life that didn’t leave much space for anything else. The director Max Stafford-Clarke wrote about this time, “…life kept taking priority over art: there was a row with her boyfriend; her daughter Lorraine was poorly; there was a court appearance for assault; the windows had been put out after a row with some neighbours.”
But while she was truly vulnerable in many ways, Andrea was also tough. She still kept writing in the gaps she could find, even though her life was full of difficulty. She followed The Arbor with a play called Rita, Sue and Bob Too and then wrote the screenplay for the successful film directed by Alan Clark. Her final piece of work was a play, Shirley.
Her sister, Pamela, said, “she wrote about what she went through, really”. Andrea wasn’t sitting in a library somewhere, sitting silently, stringing together words to make stories. She was living and breathing what she wrote. Her work was human, honest, audacious, moving, often funny and always alive.
Andrea died of a brain haemorrhage in a pub on the Buttershaw Estate. It was just months before her 30th birthday. She left behind three children and her three plays.
Andrea’s legacy lives on. Her work continues to be staged and studied. Her life story has been told in film, novel and biography. She inspired writers like me, also from rough estates, to write about what is important in our lives, what’s important to us.
So no, Andrea wasn’t a God. And she wasn’t, as critics called her, “a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a brilliant smile”. And actually, she wasn’t a miracle worker either, she was simply extremely talented. So talented that in spite of all the obstacles she faced she produced work that was celebrated by those with far more privilege. She was a woman ahead of her time, writing with real courage about real life. She was an exceptional, complex writer who created a legacy that lives on beyond her too-short thirty years. She deserves to be recognised for the enormous contribution she made to the landscape of writing.
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, won the Scottish First Book Award and was shortlisted for the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Award, Guardian First Book Award, Green Carnation Prize, Author’s Club First Novel Prize and the Polari First Book Award. Her first work of non-fiction, Lowborn, was published in 2019.
Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990) was a playwright whose first play, The Arbor, was written at the age of 15. Dunbar’s work depicted the fall out of Thatcherism on the working-class people of her Bradford estate. Dunbar’s second play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, became her most famous work after being adapted into a film.