Michelle Dee reviews The 56.

“Nobody dies at football matches in fires. It doesn’t happen.” On May 11th 1985 at 3.40pm a small fire broke out on the main stand during Bradford City’s last game of the season. Thousands watched the events unfolding at Valley Parade, live on Grandstand.

The 56 image by Jerome Whittingham
The 56 at Heads Up Festival. Photograph by Jerome Whittingham @photomoments

Lung is an award-winning company who produce verbatim theatre, that is theatre devised and developed, using only the words that real people have said. On Friday at Kardomah 94 (and Saturday in Garden Village) they performed The 56 for Heads Up audiences here in Hull.

The 56 written by Matt Woodhead and Gemma Wilson, developed with The Lowry and The Civic, Barnsley, is an incredibly powerful piece of documentary theatre, which left audiences visibly shaken, some moved to tears.

“It is not a play about football,” one audience member said afterwards, “But a play about humanity and the innate love we have for each other.”

The 56 is an example of direct address theatre, the excellent cast of Danni Phillips, Tom Lodge and Will Taylor don’t interact with each other, instead they deliver their lines out front. It is unlike other theatre – they are still playing someone else – but they have only the real-life testimonies from which to tell the story: minimal stage direction and little else. The power and the emotion comes from the way the actors deliver the lines, the way the different testimonies have been crafted together and the sobering knowledge that this all actually happened.

At the heart of The 56 there are three stories playing out, two people directly involved, and one young lad watching the horrific scenes opposite. The addition of the voices of the broadcasters from the day, add another layer of reality: the confusion, increasing panic and the realisation of the true horror of people dying in front of their eyes can be clearly felt.

First hand accounts of fans trying to escape thick choking black smoke; burning timbers crashing down from above; witnessing people spontaneously combust, as the temperature of the fire reached the kind of levels used in a crematorium; the incredible acts of courage and humanity as fans desperately tried to help one another; all are given more potency by the fact the actors don’t move. It is the imagination at work, as audience members try to imagine how it looked, how it felt: how they would react in the same circumstances.

One in the audience tonight does not need to try and put the picture together; they were there and were it not for some twist of fate, would have been sat in their regular seat in the ill-fated stand, when the fire broke out.

The reality of The Bradford City stadium fire is driven home once and for all, when all the names of those who lost their lives, are read out. You can picture father and son stood in the stand together, hear in the names large parts of one family who didn’t come home that day: all of the 56 names are heard and remembered.

The testimonies of witnesses and survivors from that terrible day have been carefully and sensitively gathered, in order to produce The 56. The play and the company have been commended for the way they have approached an event that is often described as the forgotten tragedy of the North. They are of course dealing with real people, real events, real lives, and with that comes a huge amount of responsibility, not just to those directly involved, but also to the club, the fans, before and after, and Bradford itself.

The cast talk about the sense of trust that has built between themselves, the families and the survivors, during fifty or more interviews over three years. They describe how Lung will keep performing The 56 for as long as audiences want to see it and also how the work will keep growing, as new testimony is added.

Every performance raises awareness and funds for the Bradford Burns Unit, who have been instrumental in the rehabilitation of those who suffered the most unimaginable injuries.



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