The 56

Thu 31st July – Mon 25th August 2014

reviews

Ciaran Stordy

at 08:03 on 13th Aug 2014

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A chilling piece of documentary theatre about the tragic fire at Bradford City stadium in 1985. Its script, written using real testimonies of victims and their family members, made this play a hard-hitting, unflinching force.

As I walked into the venue I beheld two men and a woman sitting atop replicated wooden seating, staring forlornly into the back recesses of the room. These were survivors of the fire, played by Willy Taylor, Tom Lodge and Danni Phillips. The atmosphere was ice cold and electric, as if I had stumbled upon the clandestine meeting of some grotesque cult. I took my seat, fascinated.

Suddenly there sounded in the background the recording of a radio announcement made in the aftermath of the fire, its terrible content setting an acute emotional pitch. From there the three began to tell their respective stories, which overlapped and interrupted each other in a combined crescendo of pure drama. As if their legs would not lift them for sheer grief, the actors did not move except to gesticulate earnestly while they recounted their ordeals. This rootedness on stage lent their voices great volume and their stories sharp urgency.

As the different accounts progressed towards the shared climax of the flaming stands they became increasingly disturbing. “I’ve been down a coal mine,” spluttered Lodge, recalling his panicked scramble for escape from the smoke-choked stands, “but [in the stadium] it was worse.” First-hand descriptions of the destructive power of fire and gruesome injuries shocked to the core. Yet as I squirmed and grimaced I realised that, by getting under my skin, the show was exhibiting its quality. Good theatre is able to provoke an audience emotionally.

I was not more than four feet from the cast; this close proximity enhanced the potency of their body language. Sedentary as they were, it was the less emphatic movements that contributed to the energy of their characters. Neither resentful gulps, nor twitching eyelids, nor clenched jaws were capable of passing unnoticed; thus the performance was able to achieve emotional nuance and sensitivity. Such virtues were vital considering the delicateness of subject matter and the fact that the actors hailed from Sheffield rather than Bradford. They were far from unconvincing as Bradfordians, however, and were able to unravel their tales of woe with tact.

A highly recommended, nearly flawless show whose verbatim style channels real suffering and speaks in a vein of authenticity.

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Ben Hickey

at 09:33 on 13th Aug 2014

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‘The 56’ is a challenging and cathartic piece of documentary theatre about the Bradford City stadium fire of 1985. Told through three intersecting narratives from character witnesses, it offers an unflinching account of the tragedy while asking us to consider how we choose to remember and commemorate such events.

The full title of the play describes it as ‘A Testimony’. The three actors deliver lines of actual witness testimonies from the day, lending the piece a decidedly authentic air. Each character delivers dialogue entirely lacking in melodrama and overstatement, allowing the horror of the tragedy to grow organically from people’s remembrances.

It takes some skill to make these witness testimonies come alive. Each of the actors manages to do just that, delivering the lines in a way that is disarmingly intimate. The tiny details of going to a football game - the walk to the ground and the colour of the turnstiles - are expressed perfectly and lure the audience in to this reality. Such preciseness in the writing means that when disaster strikes we are caught off-balance and watch it unfold afresh.

Nowhere is this in greater evidence than in the performance of Danni Philips whose every pause, intonation and inflection is carefully considered. He gives the play a sense of a private encounter rather than an authoritative version of the past.

The three eyewitness accounts have been carefully sewn together to provide a panoramic picture of the scene. The best moments are when the three monologues synchronise for a fleeting moment by focusing on particular details, such as the acrid smoke from the stand’s burning roof or the truly horrifying sight of a man slowly walking out of the stand completely engulfed in flame. The dramatic apexes of the story are communicated in a way that is understated rather than sensational.

Although the story is written and the words prescribed, this show’s real triumph is in its understanding that pathos and emotion that lie in small, seemingly insignificant details: the cup of tea at half-time, the wisp of smoke in the air. Delivered in a way that is both frank and empathetic, these images resonate in a way that is profoundly affecting. While many choose to search for the overarching legacy of incomprehensible disaster, ‘The 56’ demonstrates how the vivid and raw memories of ordinary people may in fact serve to teach us the most.

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