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The Arbor

The Arbor
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Monday August 1st, 2011

On the twentieth anniversary of the death of British playwright Andrea Dunbar, Clio Barnard took a hard look at the young woman and her legacy. The result is a gritty, dark, fascinating glimpse into the troubled life of Dunbar as told from the perspective of contemporaries and her 3 children: Lorraine, Lisa and Andrew. Actors are used to lip-sync to their recorded voices in a process that required them to listen repeatedly to the words until they could deliver them perfectly. In an interview with the Village Voice Barnard said that lip syncing would help her to elicit what she called "true performance" from her cast.

Andrea Dunbar grew up in the slums of Buttershaw Estate, Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK a once bustling textile capital whose glory days were long gone by the time the 15 year old wrote her first play based on her life experiences. That play The Arbor earned her acclaim as a teenage playwright.. It was followed up with 2 more plays, Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Shirley before she tragically succumbed  to a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29.

During her short life her success as a writer stood in contrast to her alcoholism and failed relationships with 3 men producing a child with each one.

Most of the documentary/drama focuses on Dunbar's relationship with her oldest daughter, Lorraine, whose father was a Pakistani. Manjinder Virk lip-syncs Lorraine's voice and provides the most poignant moments in the film. A tragic figure from an early age she always felt less loved at home and had the additional problem of being bi-racial in a racist environment.

Where Andrea Dunbar drifted into relationships and drank heavily  Lorraine became a prostitute to get money to feed her drug habit. She eventually gave birth to a drug addicted baby with tragic consequences to follow. This is not pleasant stuff but it is compelling.

Lorraine stands at odds from her brother and sister who feel that her criticism of Dunbar is unfair and an attempt to blame her mother for her own mistakes. But Lorraine doesn't see Dunbar as the great success story who overcame the slums of Bradford. She only sees a failed mother.