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When Andrea Dunbar tragically died at the age of 29 in 1990, she left behind ten-year-old Lorraine with bitter childhood memories. The Arbor catches up with Lorraine in the present day, also aged 29, ostracised from her mother’s family and in prison undergoing rehab. Re-introduced to her mother’s plays and letters, the film follows Lorraine’s personal journey as she reflects on her own life and begins to understand the struggles her mother faced. Through interviews with other members of the Dunbar family, we see a contrasting view of Andrea, in particular from Lorraine’s younger sister Lisa, who idolises Andrea to this day.
Dunbar wrote honestly and unflinchingly about her upbringing on the Buttershaw Estate and was hailed as ‘a genius straight from the slums’ by playwright Shelagh Delaney. Her first play, ‘The Arbor’, originally written as part of a school assignment, described the experiences of a pregnant teenager with an abusive drunken father. Its success at The Royal Court Theatre led to Dunbar’s commission to write ‘Rita Sue and Bob Too’ in 1982. The play and subsequent film by Alan Clark was described as a portrait of “Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down”. The film garnered critical acclaim at the Cannes, Berlin and Edinburgh Film Festivals in 1987 and is now considered a cult classic.
Clio Barnard also grew up in the Bradford region and in making the film, Barnard wanted to revisit the Buttershaw estate to see how it had changed in the two decades since Dunbar’s death.
Barnard recorded audio interviews with Lorraine Dunbar, other members of the Dunbar family and residents from the Buttershaw Estate over a period of two years. These interviews were edited to form an audio ‘screenplay,’ which forms the basis of the film as actors lip-synch to the voices of the interviewees. This footage was intercut with extensive archive clips as well as extracts from Andrea’s first stage play, ‘The Arbor’, filmed as a live outdoor performance on the Buttershaw Estate, to an audience of its residents.
Transcending genre and defying categorisation, The Arbor is a truly unique work, a celebration of Dunbar’s triumphs and a dissection her legacy, both from a wider social perspective and on a personal level as we witness the pain of her short and tragic life.