views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The 56
The Blue Elephant Theatre
1st May 2015


Danni Philips, Tom Lodge and Will Taylor in The 56

Photography provided by FYSA Theatre

When it comes to creating art, there's often a grain of truth, but not necessarily much more. History frequently inspires us, but we don't always tell that story in full or accurately. (Just drop the B word in front of any history teacher and as they rant and rave about Mel Gibson, you'll see what I mean.) FYSA - a company whose name stands for Funny You Should Ask - have undertaken to retell the 1985 Bradford City stadium fire as truthfully as possible. Taking artistic liberties? Not their bag. The 56 is as much a piece of theatre as it is a tribute to those 54 Bradford City and two Lincoln City supporters who lost their lives.

The 56 is a piece of verbatim theatre - this means that the words spoken by the actors belong to real people, survivors of the fire. Co-creators Gemma Wilson and Matt Stevens-Woodhead have curated which words should be used and in which order, but they haven't edited any of them. That gives the entire production an undeniable air of authenticity, which makes many of the statements feel haunting. Danni Phillips and Tom Lodge replay the afternoon of the fire as two people who were actually there - trapped, scared and confused - their accounts cannot fail to move you. Phillips is warm and friendly, embodying that typical Yorkshire lass stereotype, with Lodge more understated and anxious. Although working with outwardly quite different individuals, both Phillips and Lodge deliver an equally emotional performance.

Will Taylor gives the story a slightly different perspective: he takes on the role of someone who was at the game as a young boy, but never actually trapped in the burning stand and therefore never in any real danger. However, it's an interesting decision to include this part as it shows the impact on the wider Bradford community, and mentally placing him at the other end of the ground helps us better visualise the pitch and all the people there on that day.

The set consists of a wooden football stand with white painted numbers clearly visible on the seats - and after we learn that there was no ticket switching that day, our eyes are frequently drawn to each number, wondering whether the person allocated it managed to leave. It's a clever and well-constructed backdrop, but the stage somehow becomes far larger than just that piece of the stadium. We begin with it, but as the actors speak, we can picture Taylor's protagonist further back, looking at the black smoke, not quite sure what's going on. We can imagine Lodge's character right at the back of the stand trying to escape, the penny having dropped, and him fearing for his life. Phillips' character nearer to safety, but desperately trying to help those around her and risking her life to do so. What we see is based on that small wooden set, but our imaginations flesh it out our surroundings until we're actually on that overwhelmingly large pitch full of confusion and terror.

The three performers take turns to narrate, and cut in abruptly or overlay dialogue in a technique which effectively builds tension. There's very little movement, but this is one of the few touches which does add a bit of interest into the overall execution. In traumatic situations, we often take a while to cut to the chase and focus on pointless irrelevant details - it's a well-documented coping strategy - and this is true of the script here. Whilst it does make everything feel more real, director Stevens-Woodhead has to an extent sacrificed style for substance. Editing some of the testimonies at the start would improve the pacing. Arguably though this is more than just another play and by fulfilling that other - perhaps more important - function of educating audiences, it's difficult to be overly critical of his approach.

You cannot fault the ambition that's gone into The 56. Verbatim is a difficult genre to create and the company certainly have done Bradford proud. Not being from those parts, the fire was never part of my local history. However, having now heard the tale, I'll never forget those 56, and I suspect if everyone walks out of the theatre with that same sentiment, FYSA will have achieved what they wanted to do.

The 56 opened on 1st May and runs until 3rd May 2015 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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