Words by Sylvia Lancaster; Poetry by Simon Armitage
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: www.sophielancasterfoundation.com.
Reviewer: Kevin Bourke