Artist filmmaker Clio Barnard’s debut feature is the affecting tale of playwright Andrea Dunbar; her chaotic life, untimely death and the lingering impact of both on her children. Told in an unconventional but commendably ingenious manner, it simultaneously gives her subjects a degree of anonymity and a voice.
This fresh, evocative take on the documentary film deftly juggles its components: the confessions of those who were close to Andrea; interviews with and footage of Dunbar; excerpts from correspondences and adaptations of her work including Rita, Sue and Bob Too. The film also includes a specially performed, passionate production of her first play The Arbor, appositely played-out on sofas and bus seats in a communal area of the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, where Andrea Dunbar grew up. The unusual manner of its execution means the film is able to draw clear comparisons between Andrea’s life and her work, and it also highlights the way Lorraine Dunbar’s life has mirrored her mother’s.
Inspired by the techniques of verbatim theatre – whereby actors speak the words of interviewees – the words and voices are those of Andrea’s nearest and dearest, but actors lip-synch the to-the-camera confessions. With a full awareness of the precise nature of the artifice, the lip-synching initially jars but soon becomes virtually invisible, as the skilful actors make their impression through nuanced, committed performances which sit well with the frank, often grimly matter-of-fact recollections of events. The marriage of the theatrical and stark reality is also entirely in the spirit of Dunbar’s own work.
With Andrea’s premature death, the focus of Barnard’s film ultimately becomes the experiences of Lorraine Dunbar, the eldest of Andrea’s three children, whose own life has been characterised by tremendous hardship, culminating in her imprisonment for the manslaughter of her son. Manjinder Virk channels Lorraine’s recollections in a performance of considerable compassion and sensitivity.
The complex but coherent telling involves intertextuality aplenty. Barnard’s documentary shares its name with the play in the film, named after Brafferton Arbor, the most notorious road on the already infamous Buttershaw Estate. Talented newcomer Natalie Gavin plays both Andrea and The Girl in the estate production of The Arbor, reinforcing the autobiographical nature of Andrea’s work. Similarly, George Costigan who appears as Bob in the feature film adaptation of Rita, Sue and Bob too, also appears here as Jimmy ‘the Wig’, with whom Andrea shared several tumultuous years. Kulvinder Ghir who plays Rafee here, also had a role in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Also significant is that Danny Webb is cast both in the role of Max Stafford-Clark (the Artistic Director at the Royal Court who first recognised Andrea’s gift as a playwright when she was nineteen) and Father in the autobiographical play within the film; the inference being that Max was a parental figure to the young, talented Andrea.
Rather than wallowing in the mire of the Dunbar family’s considerable misery, Barnard has created a vital portrait of a troubled mother and daughter, which celebrates Andrea’s talent whilst not shirking from revealing her fallibility as a parent and the disastrous consequences of her lifestyle. Despite recollections of frequently distressing events, Barnard’s multi-faceted approach is refreshingly non-judgemental, illuminating and even entertaining. In the end The Arbor is an exceptionally imaginative handling of a thoroughly traumatic tale.
The Arbor is released nationwide October 22nd