The Arbor was a Misleading Title

An excerpt from Taking Stock: The Theatre of Max Stafford-Clark by Philip Roberts and Max Stafford-Clark. Reproduced by permission of Nick Hern Books

All theatres draw from a pool of professional writers. Any theatre takes pride in presenting new work by Harold Pinter or Caryl Churchill. But its focus on people who haven’t previously considered themselves professional playwrights is arguably the most important function of the Royal Court Theatre [where Stafford-Clark was Artistic Director from 1979 to 1993]. One way of becoming immediately involved in the grassroots was through the annual Young Writers’ Festival. This was a national competition open to any aspiring writer up to the age of eighteen. Plays by younger writers made particularly strenuous demands on the actors’ versatility. Talking cabbages featured in one play, and neurotic guinea pigs in another, while adolescence provoked a flood of gloomy dramas that invariably ended in suicide or unwanted pregnancies. Every year there were twelve-page bloody sagas on the death of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as vicious satires about eccentric schoolteachers.

But in 1980 there was one outstanding play: The Arbor. Written boldly in green biro on pages ripped from a school exercise book, it told the story of a Bradford schoolgirl who became pregnant on the night she lost her virginity. A family argument was depicted with brutal authenticity, and the final scene was heartbreakingly affecting and bleak. The principal character, just called ‘Girl’, had lost her baby and by accident meets the boy who had made her pregnant. The innocence of the mutual recriminations revealed how young the protagonists really were. I tried to get in touch with the writer, whose name was Andrea Dunbar, but she was in a Battered Wives’ Home in Keighley and communication was difficult. In the event, I was to know Andrea for the next thirteen years – and to be involved with her work for even longer: her best known play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which I directed for the Royal Court in 1982, was revived by Out of Joint [the company Max created in 1993] in the autumn of 2000.

The Arbor was a misleading title. A pack of abandoned and feral dogs roamed the centre of Brafferton Arbor, the crescent on which Andrea lived. But pastoral it was not. It was bleak. Some houses were boarded up, and some gardens were a tangled mess of grass and weeds, often featuring rusty bits of car engine mounted on breezeblocks; like the occasional battered caravan that also blossomed in some gardens, they were dreams of escape – hopeless male fantasies doomed to remain for ever in a state of stagnation. There were a lot of single mothers, but Andrea’s own father had stayed with his family, and his violence and feckless drinking had been the dramatic centre of Andrea’s childhood. In 1980 this was unusual: in most families the father had fucked off.

With no work and no possibility of being a provider, men had become redundant in every sense of the word. Families scratched by on benefits, on the occasional odd job, on petty crime and on dole fraud. The poverty was shocking. So were other things. A friend of Andrea’s on Brafferton had had a baby by her uncle, and it had been born with a skin disease. Andrea related the details with an amused horror. Correct political thinking would have it that male violence and abusive uncles are as common in middle-class as in working-class families. After working on Andrea’s plays I don’t believe that any longer.

In fact, I first met Andrea in her social worker’s house in Haworth. Haworth is everything the Buttershaw Estate is not. Cobbled and fragrant, it is straight out of a Hovis advertisement, and even on a dull November afternoon tourists were ascending the steep hill to the fabled Parsonage. Andrea was taciturn and ungiving. She had watchful eyes and a strong chin. She received the news that we were to produce her play at the Royal Court with no particular enthusiasm. ‘No,’ she’d never been to London before. ‘No,’ she’d never been in a theatre. ‘Alright,’ she’d be prepared to come down, but we had to get the money to the post office for the fare, don’t send it to her home. I learnt that it was a culture where you didn’t give yourself away. Admitting to pain or showing enthusiasm were both equally undesirable. You had to be hard. And Andrea had developed stoicism and a stubbornness that were impermeable and particular.

But she enjoyed rehearsal and was amazed to find how much she laughed at the scenes she had written. ‘It weren’t so funny when it were happening,’ she commented wryly about a neighbourhood row that escalated into a riot. Somehow the alchemy of theatre often turned her scenes into something that was hilarious as well as brutal. Humour co-existed with anger and desperation. Andrea and a friend came to stay at my home in Camden Town while the play was being rehearsed. It was a long way from Brafferton Arbor to Gloucester Crescent and both of us had to adapt. She didn’t like the food much and found mange-tout particularly disgusting. (Disraeli writes: ‘Two nations; who are formed by a different breeding, and are fed by a different food.’) And I found it strange to cope with a writer who was more enthusiastic about going to Buckingham Palace or Madame Tussaud’s than about coming to rehearsal. But her comments were apt and incisive: ‘He weren’t sitting down, he were standing up when he said that,’ she would say. Or, ‘She didn’t laugh then, but she did laugh when she said that.’ The autobiographical nature of the play and Andrea’s gift of total recall meant she could add lines or develop an argument as we were rehearsing. I badgered her for more detail, and invariably she provided it.

The play did well. Kathryn Pogson as the Girl was compelling and vulnerable, but she also captured Andrea’s toughness and stubbornness. By the end of the Young Writers’ Festival, the word about the quality of the evening had spread and performances were packed out. I asked Andrea to add a second half to the one-act play which would take the story of the Girl further, and we planned the full-length play to open Downstairs [the larger of the two theatres at the Royal Court] immediately after Richard Eyre’s production of Hamlet. ‘To some this appeared a wilful piece of programming. To us, still piecing together our first season as a regime, it felt like a declaration of intent,’ wrote Rob Ritchie, the Royal Court’s Literary Manager, in his introduction to Andrea’s plays. Programming a play which isn’t yet complete is always giving a hostage to fortune. Unbalanced by rushes of hope and despair, it’s hard to assess the newly written scenes with any degree of objectivity.A full-length version ofThe Arbor existed in my head, but I wasn’t altogether certain the same play occupied Andrea’s thoughts.

When she had written the first part of the play she was a fifteen-year-old Bradford schoolgirl writing a CSE exercise for a sympathetic teacher; now she was a seventeen-year-old single mother living in some chaos being asked to complete a play for ‘Europe’s most interesting theatre’. (This is what the New York Times called the Royal Court in 1992: in the same year the Sunday Times called it ‘a dump’. There was an element of truth about both statements.)

But that’s to state the dilemma from my point of view. Andrea wasn’t particularly bothered by our middle-class expectations. She had her own problems. Andrea’s world had no agents, no telephones and no bank accounts. Occasionally a few pages would arrive, but the norms of communication with a writer couldn’t be taken for granted. Sending cash to her home was impossible as her father would nick it, and sending £2,000 to be drawn in cash from the post office placed Andrea in the position of a local millionaire. Getting her to a friend’s flat where I could phone her was a logistical nightmare. And life kept taking priority over art: there was a row with her boyfriend; her daughter Lorraine was poorly; there was a court appearance for assault; the windows had been put out after a row with some neighbours. When we did speak I would suggest scenes to move the play along. We had established that the principal character, still called ‘Girl’, worked as a French comber in a mill. What was that? Could there be a scene set in the workplace? And in due course a lively scene with two girls having a fag break in the toilet arrived. But Andrea was nobody’s fool, and as she became more engaged in writing, her standards became higher. It was consoling to hear her say on the phone one day: ‘I’ve writ you a scene, but I’m not sending it down because it’s crap.’ Immediately before rehearsals restarted she came down to London to finish the play. Rob Ritchie writes, ‘She was given a desk in a tiny office and encouraged to write. “How are you?” I asked on day three. “Knackered,” she said, not looking up. “Shut the door.”’ My diary for Sunday 24 May 1980, the day before we started rehearsal, reads, ‘After three painful hours, procrastination, and a bit of a sulk, Andrea wrote the last scene.’

Max Stafford-Clark is a theatre director who first staged the work of Andrea Dunbar. He is also former Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre and co-founder of Joint Stock Theatre Company and touring company, Out of Joint.