A fact-based drama with documentary touches, ‘The Arbor’ may wind up on critics’ best lists, but the question is: which one?

‘The Arbor’s’ ‘Verbatim Theatre’ Approach Strikes Chord

Dennis Harvey August 16, 2011

Clio Barnard's ‘The Arbor’ takes a fascinating and unconventional look at Andrea Dunbar's brief, brilliant career.

The poor and undereducated are often dramatized, albeit rarely by themselves—at least not without a university degree or some other intervening factor that takes them out of their formative environs, allowing easier access to the realm of Art. When there's an exception, it usually attracts the kind of “Who'd have thunk?” curiosity accorded aspirants to the Guinness Book of World Records. A definite air of novelty thus clung to Andrea Dunbar, who came out of nowhere—actually West Yorkshire, which was as good as nowhere to the London theater community—as a 17-year-old public housing resident whose first play was a school assignment that wound up premiering at the Royal Court. Two more plays and one film adaptation followed within a few years. Then she was dead, not yet 30, hard living leading to a fatal brain hemorrhage in her habitual hangout, the local pub.

Two decades later, Clio Barnard's The Arbor takes a fascinating and unconventional look at Dunbar's brief career and, more importantly, the environment that both fed her art and destroyed her. For most viewers (it opens at the Roxie this Friday), this debut feature will likely wind up on 2011's best lists—but which list, exactly? Is it a documentary, docu-drama, or some new form comingling each? Whatever it is, it's strikingly effective.

Barnard mixes the usual interviews and archival materials with something unusual: What she terms “verbatim theatre,” having actors lip-synch (so seamlessly you might never guess) recordings of the subject's family members and Dunbar herself, letting the actual people narrate their own story while it's being reenacted. If this sounds awfully gimmicky, somehow it doesn't come off as such. Instead, The Arbor (the misleading nickname for that depressed section of Bradford she never fully escaped) uses this tactic to lend both immediacy and layered onion-peel ambiguity to a story whose various participants disagree on numerous points—save that it's a tragedy.

The Arbor was also the name of that play Dunbar wrote as a teen, and which was produced to acclaim in London, New York and beyond. It was thinly veiled autobiography, telling in harsh street language the tale of a pregnant youth in a home made chaotic by poverty and alcoholism. In real life, her upbringing was so chaotic she and her siblings were nearly burned alive when, once left home alone and locked in a bedroom while parents were off to the pub, they started a fire (for warmth) that raged out of control.

Dunbar's second play Rita, Sue and Bob Too was also set on the author's rough Buttershaw council estate—not all the residents appreciated its portraiture—focusing on two underage girls sexually involved with a much older married man. It was made into a well-received 1986 film the Roxie will show as a co-feature. Dunbar's actual romantic entanglements were likewise heedless and problematic: She had three kids by three different men, and their upbringing was at least as disorderly as her own. Unable to handle domesticity, let alone sustain an artistic career, she tumbled headlong down a rabbit's hole of drink in later years.

Being more interested in the overwhelming influence of environment on her subject than Dunbar's reaction to fame, her public image or critical reception, Barnard (who grew up in the same general area) omits some material a more standard documentary might consider essential.

But her unexpected choices pay off in considerable dramatic impact, especially when the film's subject dies little more than halfway through, leaving us to trace the subsequent lives of her children. History repeats itself with bitter poignancy in the case of half-Pakistani daughter Lorraine, who seemed determine to top mom's mistakes (her own eventually included heroin, prostitution, manslaughter and prison) without enjoying any of her celebrity.

It's a grim tale, to be sure, yet oddly beautiful in craftsmanship and moving in performance. (The principal actors are Natalie Gavin and Manjinder Virk as Andrea and Lorraine, respectively.) Dunbar's stage depiction of bleakest Northern England working-class life—mercifully, those near-impenetrable Northern accents are subtitled here—could hardly be truer to life as she lived it. By blurring the line between reportage and staged narrative, Dunbar's Arbor achieves the same effect.