tue 25/06/2024

DVD: The Arbor | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Arbor

DVD: The Arbor

Bleak, unremitting, with some twists of humour: the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar

Hell, in the open air: Natalie Gavin (right) as Andrea Dunbar and Jimi Mistry as Lorraine’s dad Yousaf

Andrea Dunbar’s story was extremely grim when first told in her 1980 play The Arbor (I’m unable to explain why, for a leafy retreat in so English a context - however decimated - the American spelling is used) and it remains so: a medieval catalogue of domestic abuse, alcoholism, racism, stupidity and misery bordering on caricature. Was it really so bad in Bradford in the 1970s? Apparently so. Is it still? I’ve no idea.

For that species of ignorance, I’d be accused in many quarters of wilful, southern, middle-class self-protectionism. Yet I’m not so sure. We all have our crosses to bear. Most of them aren’t candidates for public consumption, whether you’re brought up on a post-war Yorkshire city estate which looks, in The Arbor, like nothing other than a human experiment gone violently wrong or, as I was, in the privileged Home Counties, where nutty human mistakes are - believe me - just as rife and damaging.

That said, few people with terrible stories to tell tell them unadorned, or demotically, spontaneously well. Andrea Dunbar was an exception. Writing The Arbor at 15, she was dead by 29, leaving behind her another play which became the basis of the cult film Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Clio Barnard’s study of Dunbar’s short life and melancholy legacy is related, affectingly, through the words of friends and relations, mainly those of her mixed-race daughter Lorraine. We hear the real people, their words lip-synched by a brilliant, though perhaps rather inauthentically attractive cast (particularly in Manjinder Virk’s angelic Lorraine), with the narrative intercut with documentary footage.

It’s very compelling but unremitting in its evocation of an almost Sophoclean cycle of despair. Some boldly experimental/factual films can end up looking like sociology and The Arbor falls only minutely short of that - saved by gobbits of a version of the original play being worked out on the estate itself and a hilarious impersonation (looks only) by Danny Webb of Max Stafford-Clark, the Royal Court director who took the feral Dunbar on.

Watch Clio Barnard being interviewed at the 2010 Karlovy Vary Film Festival

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