Review: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

I had been looking forward to this event for some time, and even more so since I interviewed the amazing Lisa Holdsworth a couple of weeks ago.

Lisa has adapted the novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, by the equally amazing Adelle Stripe, into a stage play and its first performance was by The Freedom Studios in the Ambassador Pub in Bradford on 31st May. The Mission Statement of Freedom Studios reads as follows: ‘To be the home for new and experienced artists in Bradford with a view to bringing together audiences and communities by creating new work and other opportunities for them to engage with the arts.’  If this is a fair sample of their output then they are succeeding admirably.

Both the book and play are intended as works of fiction, albeit based on the life of Andrea Dunbar, who died at the tragically young age of 29, after writing The Arbour and Rita Sue and Bob Too, both of which were premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London.  The inclusion of fictitious elements arose because Andrea’s life was not meticulously recorded and therefore there is speculation as to some of the events. Real characters are represented along with fictional ones for illustration.

Knowing that I would be interviewing Ms Holdsworth, I read the book and wondered how she was going to turn a piece which moved from Bradford to London, to Brighton, to Keighley and back to Bradford into something which could be performed in a small space above a pub – just set it in a replica of The Beacon, Andrea’s local pub! The fake bar served not only drinks but also as a witness box in a courtroom, and the tables and chairs were also a dining room and an office in the BBC. The bar room itself was the Royal Court Theatre, the Dunbar’s sitting room, a taxi booking office, a mill and all manner of other venues conjured up by the creative team.

So as not to disturb the flow here, I will mention the creative team members at the end, but please take a little time to look at the list as they were such an integral part of the production, possibly even more so than if it had been staged in a conventional theatre, as they didn’t have the room for many props or any sets, and even costume changes were done behind the real bar. The magic was worked by making the audience use their imagination in the utilisation of lighting and sound effects.  The one set was a pub when the Christmas lights came on and the juke box sprang into life, a sitting room when bar stools were gathered together, a theatre when the cast strutted around the room…..
The way in which the play was structured was also superb, with the main character, played by Emily Spowage, not only being the adult Andrea Dunbar, but also the narrator and even her character’s own father.  Young Andrea, played by Lucy Hird, was a revelation, almost imperceptibly growing up from cheeky child to adult as the play went on. This could also be said of Claire Marie who played Eileen, Andrea’s best friend through life and seemingly having as traumatic a time as her mate.  Claire also took the role of Sophie from the Royal Court, which meant a total change of character from Buttershaw lass to luvvie.  Laura Lindsay played dual roles, being Andrea’s mother, Alma, and Carole, a director at the Royal Court.  The final cast member was Balvinder Sopal, who took the roles of Mo, landlady at the Beacon pub, and Patsy, the casting director for the film of Rita, Sue and Bob, too. Not only are these latter three women credited with acting in two roles each but they also played multiple others as the play progressed.  The entire cast drew us into each scene – absorbing, engaging and altogether sublimely impressive.
The crux of the play is that Andrea, who is from Brafferton Arbour, Buttershaw, described by one journalist as being the worst street on the worst estate in Bradford, has a talent for writing but is stymied at every turn by everyone saying that people from Bradford can’t be writers.  That would seem to rule out J B Priestley then. In spite of this, she has a lucky break when she meets Claire, a volunteer in a Women’s Shelter where Andrea has fled from her abusive husband.  Claire works for a theatre company in Bradford and takes the manuscript for The Arbour to be appraised.  There follows the story of her rise to fame, her betrayal by the film company who change the screenplay for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, so that it loses the whole point of the piece, and then her return to Buttershaw and decline into drink.  The irony is that she was a product of where she was brought up and that was the only place she could feel real. When fame and fortune beckoned she could not survive in an alien world but by the same token could not go back to how she was when all of the people she knew on the estate thought that she was loaded, while actually she was penniless; a classic example of being careful about what you wish for as you just might get it.

There was an amazing piece of karma in the evening as, when I arrived at the Ambassador, I went into the pub rather than the performance space, and even at 7.00pm karaoke night was in full swing. As I went to the bar to ask where the play was being performed, a woman was giving full throat to the Gene Pitney classic Town Without Pity.  I don’t think that there could have been a more appropriate soundtrack to the performance I was about to watch; not only in the name of the song, which certainly reflected Andrea’s return to Bradford, but it was also a song recorded by a man but tonight performed by a woman.  Tonight’s cast were all female, as are the creative team.

That reminds me.  Below, as promised, are those names and contributions to this wonderful production. I would urge you to go and see the play for yourself if you can get a ticket but it seems to be sold out, not just for its run in Bradford but also for a large part of the rest of the tour. A pity really as I would love to see it again. A theatre reviewer prepared to spend his own money to watch a play – now there is a first.  


Director – Kash Arshad
Designer – Hannah Sibai
Stage Manager – Emaleigh Plighting
Sound Designer – Karen Lauke
Lighting Associate – Keilidh Whyte
Assistant Director – Jaasra Aslam  

Every one a gem.   

All photographs by Tim Smith.

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