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Vital Signs: Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor”

Vital Signs: Clio Barnard's "The Arbor"

If it were not for the playwright Andrea Dunbar—whose artistic career lasted from when she was 15 (she wrote her first play The Arbor for a school project, later picked up by London’s Royal Court Theatre) to her death at 29 when she suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on the floor of her local pub—then the Buttershaw Estate, a housing project on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire, would merely be an unremarkable vestige of Thatcher’s Britain. There are hundreds like it scattered across northern industrial towns since the decline of Britain’s mining, manufacturing and textile industries. Instead, thanks to Dunbar’s plays (in particular the ribald comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too, filmed in 1986 by Allan Clarke) the estate which was her home and is also the backdrop to Clio Barnard’s film of Dunbar’s life, The Arbor, has become a vivid living landscape in its own right—one that compels the viewer to look beyond the dingy brickwork and overgrown grass, and discover bit by bit the nature and extent of the bubbling human turmoil within its ramshackle walls. The lives of the inhabitants of the Buttershaw Estate feature throughout Dunbar’s plays, yet none of the injustice of their disenfranchised lives is decried and nor are any solutions proposed—the value of her work is to persuade the audience to venture inside a place their every instinct would ordinarily compel them to pass by, and to listen to voices they would otherwise ignore. Read all of Julien Allen’s review of The Arbor.

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