WHEN 15-year-old Andrea Dunbar failed to bring in the ingredients for a domestic science lesson, her punishment was to spend her lunchtime writing the words ‘Why I Don’t Like Cookery’.

What Andrea wrote instead was a witty essay on how baking buns was a middle-class pursuit and joints of meat were more practical for big families on Buttershaw estate. “When the essay was passed around the staffroom, to howls of laughter, head of drama Tony Priestley was astonished at what he saw,” wrote Adelle Stripe in her acclaimed novel Black Teeth And A Brilliant Smile. “It was obvious to him that she had a gift for saying the right thing. And she was funny. He asked if she’d like to join his class. What happened over coming months would change Andrea’s life forever.”

Encouraged by her teacher, Andrea wrote her first play, The Arbor, as a CSE assignment in 1977. The play, about a Bradford schoolgirl who falls pregnant, premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1980. The youngest playwright to have her work staged there, she was hailed ‘a genius from the slums’ by one tabloid newspaper. The Arbor was later performed in New York and Andrea was the subject of a BBC Arena documentary.

Commissioned for a second play, she wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too, aged 18. The comedy, about two teenage babysitters romping with a married man, was another Royal Court hit. The 1987 film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, based on both her plays, was released in 1987.

Andrea’s final play, Shirley, about a girl’s stormy relationship with her mother, was, like her others, a semi-autobiographical account of life on Buttershaw estate, where she grew up. Andrea had three children, the first two still in her teens. Fleeing an abusive relationship, she spent months in a Women’s Aid refuge.

But she defied the odds to become one of her generation’s most significant dramatists. Then, in 1990, she died from a brain haemorrhage. Aged 29, Andrea collapsed in her local pub, The Beacon, where she had often retreated to write.

Today The Beacon is empty and boarded up, and there’s an application to demolish it. But a blue plaque in Andrea’s memory hangs outside her former home on Brafferton Arbor - and nearly 30 years after her death, her legacy lives on. Last month Out of Joint’s production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too came to St George’s Hall, the first time a professional production of it had been to Bradford. Alyce Liburd, who played Rita, said Andrea’s “honest and raw” writing remains relevant. “She wrote about poverty and escape, in a way that’s brutal but funny,” said Alyce.

Later this month Freedom Studios presents the stage premiere of Adelle Stripe’s compelling novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, a fictionalised account of Andrea’s brief but defiant life. Drawing on letters, scripts, newspaper cuttings and memories, it explores Andrea’s school and family life, relationships and highs and lows as a writer. Adapted by screenwriter Lisa Holdsworth, a lead writer on BBC1 hit drama Call the Midwife, the play will be performed at Bradford pub The Ambassador (tickets are selling out), prior to a tour. There will also be a performance at Buttershaw Youth Centre.

It is set in 1990 in The Beacon pub on Buttershaw estate, where Andrea Dunbar, acclaimed writer, mother, sister, best friend, is struggling with her latest work. Her aching head is full of stories from her past which have to be heard.

Calderdale writer Adelle Stripe, who describes Andrea as “one of Yorkshire’s greatest female writers”, says this production “finally brings Andrea back home”.

“Lisa Holdsworth is one of the region’s most respected screenwriters and a loyal, outspoken supporter of Andrea’s work. Director Kash Arshad is a ferocious talent, under his stewardship Andrea’s life and work will receive a dynamic re-telling.”

Much of Andrea’s drive, says Adelle, came from fighting stereotypes of where she came from. “Like other estates in Bradford, Buttershaw was built to house post-war families as part of the city’s slum clearance. Within 20 years many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair,” says Adelle.”When a Guardian journalist visited Andrea to interview her in 1980, the article was peppered with descriptions of social deprivation: ‘It’s the worst street on the worst estate in Bradford. The only waiting list is the one to get out’. This condescending style would continue throughout her life, and Andrea constantly fought against media misconceptions of Buttershaw.”

After leaving school Andrea worked at Bowling Mill. It was a time of steep economic decline. “Between 1978 and 1981 23,000 jobs were lost in Bradford - 16,000 in the textiles and engineering trade,” says Adelle. “Buttershaw gave Andrea a unique vision. But she had an uneasy relationship with her literary career, and being a single mother-of-three interfered with her writing ambitions. Towards the end of her life she struggled to write, at the time of her death she owed scripts to various producers and had writer’s block. The financial success and moral uproar provoked by the film had many implications in her personal life which continued years after its release. In the final years of her life, Andrea worked alongside her family at a speaker-making factory in Buttershaw, packing boxes on a production line.”

For anyone coming to the play who knows nothing about Andrea, what does it show about her life? “That she was documenting real life, as she experienced it, with no judgment, or expectation of morality,” says Adelle. “It’s a clear, honest account of working-class life, warts and all. They are difficult truths, but they provide an important insight into that period, and we should view her writing against the social and political backdrop of that time.”

Although Andrea didn’t define herself as a feminist, Adelle says that if it wasn’t for radical feminism she may not have been discovered in the first place. “The women working at the Women’s Aid refuge in Keighley, where Andrea stayed, were connected to consciousness raising groups. Claire MacDonald and Jalna Hanmer passed her script to Liane Aukin, that’s how The Arbor arrived at the Royal Court. She was also employed on a youth scheme at Impact Theatre Group in Bradford and worked with Lee Comer on her placement. This all happened as a direct result of feminist networks, they made a positive change in her life at that time.”

Adds Adelle: “It’s worth considering that three of her plays have dominant female characters, and she wrote battleaxe roles with great skill. These are strong Northern women, mothers and daughters crushed by the levels of hardship (and useless men) they’re forced to endure. There is a sense of female solidarity through the small gestures of her characters; in the closing scene of Shirley mother and daughter share a cigarette, and at the end of Rita, Sue and Bob Too Sue’s mum buys Bob’s wife a drink. These actions show her faith in strong female relationships.”

Adelle reveals that Andrea was friends with Maureen Long, one of Peter Sutcliffe’s surviving victims, and at one point she intended to write about it. “The shadow he cast across women in the North at that time was vast. This was a period of anxiety, intimidation and violence. Women had to be chaperoned between work and home, and in West Yorkshire there was a self-imposed curfew stemming from the actions of one man,” she says. “Andrea wrote The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too during this time, it’s important to consider the context of her work against this climate of fear. Her work provides an insight into Bradford in the late 1970s and early 80s. Perhaps the behaviour of Rita and Sue is an act of rebellion against the frightening world surrounding them.”

Lisa Holdsworth says Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile celebrates “the life, work and spirit of Andrea” and “Adelle Stripe’s extraordinary book which brings out Andrea’s humour and bravery”.

“I took the bits I felt were important to her life that we could dramatise,” adds Lisa. “I thought about what she’d say to her younger self, so the play has a younger and older Andrea. It’s set on the last day of her life, as she looks back on it all.

“I don’t think Andrea was an easy person - Adelle says she could start an argument in a graveyard - but she was an exceptional talent. If there was a young talent like that in Bradford now, would it be spotted? With so much emphasis on SATs and exam results, I think the answer is no. A girl like Andrea wouldn’t have chance to shine in that environment.”

Blunt and unsentimental, Andrea didn’t judge or offer solutions, she just wrote what she knew. And what she knew was life on an estate, as an unmarried teenage mother, in and out of a violent relationship. “With Andrea you think: ‘What a waste, it was all cut so short’. You wonder what she would have gone on to do,” says Lisa. “If she had lived, I think she’d be writing for television now. Her voice would be out there.”

Lisa started as a PA for Kay Mellor, who was one of Andrea’s mentors. When Kay asked her to write an episode of her ITV drama Fat Friends, Lisa, like Andrea, wrote about what she knew. “I was bullied as a child for being fat, I’m 45 now and still feel the effect of that. So I wrote an autobiographical episode about a character played by Lisa Riley confronting her old bullies. I imagined how it would feel to do that,” says Lisa, who went on to write for Emmerdale, New Tricks, Waterloo Road, Midsomer Murder and now writes for BBC1 hit Call the Midwife and Channel 4 school drama Ackley Bridge. She’s deputy chairman of the Writers Guild of Great Britain, which last year released a report on gender inequality in film and TV. “Only 16 per cent of primetime TV, and a tiny proportion of film, is written by women,” says Lisa. “There’s an unconscious bias excluding women, which has a lot to do with bad working practices. Yet 52 per cent of the viewing population are women who want TV that reflects their experience.”

Black Teeth And A Brilliant Smile has an all-female cast, including Emily Spowage, who was in recently-released film Eaten by Lions, as older Andrea and Bradford actress Lucy Hird as younger Andrea. “We took a decision not to put the men of Andrea’s life on the stage,” says Lisa. “It was other women - including Kay Mellor, who is represented - who advocated for her.”

Bradford-based Freedom Studios connects communities through theatre-making. Site-specific productions include The Mill - City of Dreams, about immigrant millworkers, staged in Drummonds Mill; Brief Encounters, short plays performed in Bradford Interchange; and North Country, a post-apocalyptic vision of Bradford, performed in a pop-up arts hub in Darley Street’s former Marks & Spencer building.

“The M&S pop-up was one of the best things I’ve seen,” says Lisa. “It’s a pleasure working with Freedom Studios. When they said Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile would be staged in a pub, I said: ‘I’m up for it’. It’s accessible and will have a relaxed feel; like going out for a drink.”

Andrea probably would have approved.

* Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is at The Ambassador, Sunbridge Road, Bradford, May 30 to June 8 at 7.30pm. No performance on June 2. Matinees on Saturday June 1 and Saturday June 8 are 2pm. Tickets are on a pay-what-you-decide basis - £4, £6 or £12 - with a free drink. The Buttershaw Youth Centre performance is Monday, June 17 at 7.30pm. Proceeds go to the centre. Visit freedomstudios.co.uk