The Arbor, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

Once upon a time in the North
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The Independent Culture

In 1980, before Andrea Dunbar became notorious with Rita, Sue, and Bob Too, she wrote, at 18, The Arbor. This short play washes over you like a dream. It never stops moving; nor do the actors. The main character, Andrea, sits down only when she is being seduced by her first beau ("Are you gonna lay down with me?") or having a stillborn child ("It's not mine").

The inhabitants of the Bradford council estate for which the play is named wouldn't know an arbor if it bit them. Andrea, 15, is sent to a school for pregnant teenagers, where the subjects include, a classmate tells her, "trees and flowers". It is the only time she laughs.

The headmaster of Andrea's comprehensive has sent her there, he says, because if she remained at school, the other girls "might call you names and generally make life difficult and unpleasant for you". That is one of the play's many ironies: Andrea has never known anything else. She is one of eight children. Her mother screams constantly; her father beats her. When the play is over, you realise that no one, neither her parents nor her boyfriends, shows Andrea any affection.

Sex for Andrea and her neighbours occurs during a brief cessation of hostilities. Her friend confides that she has had it off with a boy whose alluring line was: "Are you comin' to the toilet with me?" Andrea has been even naughtier: she has slept with a Pakistani. Pregnant again, she is beaten by her new boyfriend, who, when she runs off, says to her friend, "If you see her before I do, tell her she's dead."

The astonishing thing about Andrea is her indestructible spirit. She glories in the small rebellions open to her. Having received maternity benefit, she tells her friend gleefully, "I didn't spend any of it on baby." One sees her point of view.

The actors could not be more lifelike ­ outstanding are Kate Crossley as Andrea and Nicky Goldie as her defeated mother and a teacher at the trees-and-flowers school. When Andrea says she can't knit, the smiley pedagogue says, "I could learn you."

Author biographies should be irrelevant to the spectator's response, but this one is a special case. Dunbar grew up with seven siblings on a Bradford road called Brafferton Arbor. At 15, she had a stillborn child, and at 17, she had a baby by a Pakistani, who abandoned her. She never left the estate, and, at 28, after two more children by two other men who scarpered, having become a heavy drinker, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage. When, in her play, Andrea, alone in a room for the first time, says: "Very quiet here", one can imagine her in a much smaller space.

To 23 June (0114-249 6000)

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