Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Black Roses: The Killing Of Sophie Lancaster

Words by Sylvia Lancaster; Poetry by Simon Armitage
Royal Exchange
Royal Exchange Studio
19 September 2012 to 29 September 2012

On August 11, 2007 twenty-year old Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend Robert were attacked by a group of teenagers in a park in Bacup, Lancashire. Sophie went to Robert's aid and the couple were kicked, stamped on and left unconscious for the "crime" of looking different. A few days later, Sophie died from her injuries in hospital. She had just passed her A-levels, had moved into a bedsit with Robert and was working out what to do with her life. But she was killed because she was dressed differently.

Last year, her tragic story was turned into an award-winning play for BBC Radio Four, an elegy for Sophie in which she told her own story through a series of poems by poet Simon Armitage, set alongside the words of her mother Sylvia Lancaster.

In that production, Rachel Austin played Sophie and Coronation Street actress Julie Hesmondhalgh was Sylvia. The pair of them reprise the parts in this new stage version, co-directed by the Royal Exchange's Sarah Frankcom and BBC Radio Drama producer Susan Roberts.

It's a memorable and deeply moving piece. Indeed, some audience members were unashamedly weeping (thoughtfully, the Studio provide tissues on your way in) after the performance I saw, while many others had already fallen into deep conversation about the story and its implications. Of course the story itself is tragic and it's outrageous to think that we live in a world where something like this can still happen. But what makes the production so moving, it seems to me, is the eye for the tiny details that personalise it. I started to blub, for instance, when Sylvia talked about the pyjamas and toilet bag she brought to the hospital for her "dark fairy" in the days after the attack, when everyone still thought that Sophie was going to recover. Others may lose their composure elsewhere but this is not a production that lets anyone in the audience get away emotionally unscathed. I'm sure Sophie herself would approve of that, as she would - probably even more - of the way Black Roses also boasts lighter, even funny, moments such as her unlikely reverence for "Marilyn Manson's saliva".

With a set that consists of little more than a rectangle of greenery, around which Rachel's Sophie moves, enclosing the area around her Mum's chair, where Julie recounts her version of Sophie's life, the production reflects its audio-only roots, but not to its detriment. The audience are inevitably drawn into the words but there's a great power in the way these two fine actresses interact without any physical contact.

It's stirring, thought-provoking material, well-performed, and highly recommended. 

*After Sophie's death, her family set up a charity the Sophie Lancaster Foundation to help promote respect and understanding of sub-cultures in our communities. You can get more details from:

Reviewer: Kevin Bourke


Comment by Alan Hulme

Yes, I fully endorse Kevin's review.

The piece is very short, around 50 minutes, but far from an easy sit. Like him, and, I suspected, much of the rest of the first night audience, I almost lost it completely at a couple of points.

A very powerful experience, with two really excellent performances. In particular Julie Hesmondhalgh is incredibly convincing, I've rarely seen a performance I've believed in more. Outstanding.

Comment by Diana Stenson

I first heard "Black Roses" in its radio incarnation during a long drive last year.  It has never left me but could not imagine how the script  would translate to stage.  This is a supremely sensitive achievement by Sarah Francom.  As we know, it is the true terrible tale of two harmless, hopeful young people viciously attacked by a gang in a public park.  Despite the horrific outcome, astoundingly, there is no room here for dramatic re-creations, histrionics, screaming or bitterness.  All is shared reflections and loving memories by both actors from the moment of Sophie's birth "I was slow to get born" to her mother's final anguish as she died "a medusa of drips and tubes".  Not only is this desperately moving but in my case anger too.  However, in the spirit of this piece there is no final mention of the fate of those mindless thugs - you are left to discover that yourself.   Unmissable if you can get a ticket.