Andrea Dunbar

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Andrea Dunbar
Andrea Dunbar playwright.jpg
Born22 May 1961
Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died20 December 1990(1990-12-20) (aged 29)
Bradford, West Yorkshire, England
Literary movementRealism

Andrea Dunbar (22 May 1961 – 20 December 1990) was an English playwright. She wrote The Arbor (1980) and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982), an autobiographical drama about the sexual adventures of teenage girls living in a run-down part of Bradford, West Yorkshire. She wrote most of the adaptation for the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987).[1]

Early life[edit]

Dunbar was raised on Brafferton Arbor on the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford[2] with seven brothers and sisters. Both her parents had worked in the textile industry.[3] Dunbar attended Buttershaw Comprehensive School.


Dunbar began her first play The Arbor in 1977 at the age of 15,[4] writing it as a classroom assignment for CSE English. It is the story of "a Bradford schoolgirl who falls pregnant to her Pakistani boyfriend on a racist estate," and has an abusive drunken father.[4][5][6] Encouraged by her teacher, she was helped to develop the play to performance standard.[7] It received its première in 1980 at London's Royal Court Theatre, directed by Max Stafford-Clark.[4] At the age of 18, Dunbar was the youngest playwright to have her work performed there.[8] Alongside a play entered by Lucy Anderson Jones, The Arbor jointly won at the Young Writers' Festival, and was later augmented and performed in New York City.[9] On 26 March 1980, she was featured in the BBC's Arena arts documentary series.

Dunbar was quickly commissioned to write a follow-up play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, first performed in 1982. This explores similar themes to The Arbor through the lives of two teenage girls who are having affairs with the same married man. Dunbar's third and final play, Shirley (1986), places greater emphasis on a central character.[10] It depicts a girl's "tumultuous relationship" with her mother. As she explained, she meant to write "about Shirley and John but, you know, I wrote the mother in and she bloody took over the whole play."[11]

The film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987) was adapted for the cinema by Dunbar, directed by Alan Clarke and filmed on the Buttershaw estate. Dunbar disowned the film when more writers were brought in to give it a happier ending.[4] However, it created considerable controversy on the estate because of its negative portrayal of the area.[4] Dunbar was threatened by several residents, but nevertheless continued to live there.[4]

In 2010 a commemorative blue plaque on Dunbar's former home on Brafferton Arbor was unveiled in the presence of her relatives.[12]

Personal life[edit]

Dunbar first became pregnant at the age of 15; the baby was stillborn at six months.[13] She later had three children by three different fathers. The first, Lorraine, was born in 1979, and had a Pakistani father.[14] A year later, in 1980, Lisa was born, again while Dunbar was still a teenager.[15] About three years later, she had a son, Andrew, with Jim Wheeler.[16][17]

As a single mother, Dunbar lived in a Women's Aid refuge in Keighley and became an increasingly heavy drinker.[18] In 1990 she died of a brain haemorrhage in Bradford Royal Infirmary at the age of 29, after falling ill in The Beacon, a pub on the Buttershaw Estate, at the junction of Reevy Road West and The Crescent. It was closed in 2016 and demolished in 2019, but appears in the opening shot of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Her cremated remains were buried at Scholemoor Cemetery and Crematorium (Section N, Grave 1219) in Bradford. Her headstone is a small black granite cross.[19][20]

In 2007, her eldest daughter Lorraine, a heroin addict at the time, was convicted of manslaughter for causing the death of her child by gross neglect after the child ingested a lethal dose of methadone.[21][22]

In January 2018, her daughter Lisa Pearce died of stomach cancer after having been diagnosed in December 2016.[23]


In 2000, Dunbar's life and her surroundings were revisited in the play A State Affair by Robin Soans.[24]

A film about her life, The Arbor, directed by Clio Barnard, was released in 2010.[4] The film uses actors lip-synching to interviews with Dunbar and her family, and concentrates on the strained relationship between Dunbar and her daughter Lorraine.[4][2] The film was nominated for a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Director, and won the Sutherland Trophy, at the 2010 London Film Festival Awards. It also won the Sheffield Innovation Award at the 2010 Sheffield Doc/Fest.

A novel inspired by Dunbar's life and work, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe, was published in 2017 by Wrecking Ball Press.[25] It was shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature and the Gordon Burn Prize.[26][27] A second edition came from Fleet Publishing in the same year.[28] In 2019 a stage adaptation by Freedom Studios and screenwriter Lisa Holdsworth was announced in The Guardian. Dramatisation of Stripe's novel focused on women's relationships, with a cast of five sharing the roles. It portrayed a teenage Dunbar rising to national note with her autobiographical works The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and the challenges of life on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford.[29]

A 2019 Woolyback production for BBC Radio 4 written and directed by Sean Grundy – Rita, Sue and Andrea Too – dramatized the life and career of Dunbar, played by Natalie Gavin.[30]


  1. ^ Youngs, Ian (28 May 2019). "The teenage Bradford 'genius' who told it like it was". BBC News. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
  2. ^ a b Clayton, Emma (4 September 2009). "Friends to star in Dunbar's years on Bradford's Buttershaw Estate". The Bradford Telegraph & Argus. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  3. ^ Bunting, Madeleine (18 October 2010). "Social deprivation in Britain: how a writer's life turned to tragedy". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Hickling, Alfred (12 April 2010). "Back to Bradford: Andrea Dunbar remembered on film". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  5. ^ Gardner, Lyn (6 June 2001). "Theatre review: The Arbor". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  6. ^ Gilbey, Ryan (21 October 2010). "The Arbor (15)". New Statesman. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  7. ^ Katherine Anne Limmer, "Investigating the Authority of the Literary Text in Critical Debate". Archived 31 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Dying daughter calls for memorial to mum". BBC News. 16 October 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  9. ^ Rich, Frank (21 September 1983). "Theater: 'The Arbor,' From Britain". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  10. ^ Susan Carlson, Process and Product: Contemporary British Theatre and its Communities of Women, Theatre Research International (1988), 13: pp 249–263.
  11. ^ Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy: The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present Day (London: Batsford, 1990), p. 315.
  12. ^ Meneaud, Marc (17 October 2010). "Film and plaque are tributes to playwright Andrea". Telegraph & Argus. Retrieved 29 May 2021.
  13. ^ "Lyn Gardner, Born to Write and Die". The Guardian, 4 July 1998.
  14. ^ Johnston, Sheila (18 October 2010). "The Arbor: examining Andrea Dunbar's legacy". Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 18 April 2020.
  15. ^ "Liam Allen, The Arbor: In the footsteps of Rita, Sue and Bob". BBC News, 22 October 2010.
  16. ^ Davis, Mark (17 August 2017). "Rita, Sue and Bob Too: 30 years on, we talk to Lisa Pearce, daughter of the acclaimed playwright Andrea Dunbar/". Retrieved 18 April 2020.
  17. ^ "Artangel". Retrieved 18 April 2020.
  18. ^ Stripe, Adelle (2017). Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. London, United Kingdom: Fleet. pp. 76–96. ISBN 978-0-7088-9895-6. OCLC 1023843825.
  19. ^ "Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990) - Find a Grave Memorial".
  20. ^ "Rita, Sue and Bob Too: We talk to the daughter of Andrea Dunbar". 17 August 2017.
  21. ^ Tribeca '10 |Clio Barnard's "The Arbor" Defies Categorization, Indiewire, 10 April 2010.
  22. ^ Martin Wainwright, "Playwright's darkest visions return to consume her family". The Guardian, 24 November 2007.
  23. ^ Clayton, Emma (5 January 2018). "Andrea Dunbar's 'force of nature' daughter dies". Bradford Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 18 April 2020.
  24. ^ Rita, Sue and Bob Too by Andrea Dunbar/A State Affair by Robin Soans, Methuen Books, 2000, ISBN 0-413-75700-5
  25. ^ "Rita, Sue and Bob Too: A snapshot of 1980s Britain". BBC News. 29 May 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  26. ^ "Denise Mina makes Gordon Burn Prize shortlist | The Bookseller". Retrieved 21 July 2017.
  27. ^ Sethi, Anita (12 January 2020). "Northern writers on why a north-specific prize is more important than ever". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 29 June 2020.
  28. ^ "ANDREA DUNBAR-INSPIRED NOVEL TO FLEET |". Retrieved 10 September 2017.
  29. ^ Wiegand, Chris (10 December 2018). "Andrea Dunbar's life story to be staged in Bradford pub". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 7 January 2019.
  30. ^ "Rita Sue and Andrea too". Retrieved 13 July 2021.

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