The year 1985; I remember it well – my son was born that year. But the supporters of Bradford City football club will remember it because of ‘The 56’. Because of the 56 people who lost their lives, in a fire in the wooden stands, at Valley Parade (Bradford City’s football stadium) on 11 May 1985, at 3.40pm. It only took four minutes for the fire to take complete hold of that stand, where thousands of supporters were watching Bradford play the last game of the season.
Last night, at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, I was witness to LUNG Theatre giving testimony to that horrific day, to those who perished and to the survivors. Matt Woodhead and Gemma Watson, the writers, used over sixty testimonies from the day, to produce a documentary. But only a documentary in the sense that it was full of facts and recollections – as it was also full of feeling and soul.
The set, props and lighting were all pared back. A black back drop, a spotlight, red lights and a wooden stand – were the only extras on stage. It all added to the severity and solemnity of the verbatim coming from the mouths of the three actors. The actors: Tom Lodge, Danielle Phillips and Will Taylor paid homage to ‘The 56’, by taking us through the day of the 11 of May and the days surrounding it. All three recalled the events as if they were a supporter who had been there and survived. The actors’ authentic Yorkshire voices were measured, yet emotional; sometimes a lone voice, sometimes in unison. Real-life news coverage of the tragedy was played a little bit throughout – only audio though, there was nothing visual or graphic. All of this made me feel that the play showed great respect for the 56 children and adults who died, when one small spark in the wooden stands became an inferno.
Another word that comes to mind is… dignity. After the play there was a ‘Meet the Cast and Creative Team’ session, chaired by Gez Casey, Live Theatre’s Literary Manager. Gez started off the free ‘Q’s & A’s’ and then it was opened up to the audience. That was when it transpired that there were at least four Bradford City supporters (Bantams) in the audience. They all said that they had been there on the 11 May; that they were all sceptical about the play and how the fire would be handled… but they all said it had been portrayed with dignity by LUNG theatre. I took in a loud intake of breath when they first spoke.
Gez said he first saw the play up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in a small room and that the emotion in the room was palpable. I could imagine that and wished I’d been there. However, Live Theatre’s small, intimate space does lend itself well to such productions. I don’t think I would want to see it in a bigger venue.
When I got home I watched the TV news coverage of the fire on ‘youtube’ and read some of the news around the Popplewell Inquiry (the inquiry into the fire by Justice Popplewell); one thing did strike me – that there had been no finger-pointing or naming and shaming throughout the play. Again; a testament to the dignity shown towards the 56 people… and the survivors and the community of Bradford.
As the three actors at the end, stood in their original positions on stage – turning their backs to the audience, I felt a chill. Whether you are a football supporter or not, I defy anyone not to feel goose bumps or the sting of tears… as Tom ties his Bantam scarf to the wooden stand, the lighting dims and the names of ‘The 56’ are slowly read out. A dignified ending.
The 56 carries on tour, after Live Theatre, to other theatres including: Otley Courthouse 9 September; Selby Town Hall 10 September and Torch Theatre, Milford Haven 23 November. Find out more about the tour.
A share of profits from the play’s tour will be donated to the University of Bradford Burns and Plastic Surgery Unit.