New Writing, Assembly George Square Studios, Venue 17, 12:00 until 31st August.
Looking at one of football’s forgotten tragedies, The 56 gives a horrifying glimpse into the events of the Bradford City Fire and how it has impacted so many people – and how that same community relied to support one another in the face of such tragedy.
It has been thirty years since the events of the play took place when the main stand at Valley Parade, home to Bradford City, caught fire and claimed the lives of 56 people. With a cast of three and a minimalistic stage, presented to look like the wooden terraces that caught ablaze in 1985, the words of the survivors are allowed to stand alone and take centre stage as the cast use verbatim testimonies from survivors of the disaster.
It’s not often that football and theatre go together but even if you have no interest in the game, the documentary from FYSA Theatre paints a vivid picture without relying on any gimmicks. The words of over 60 interviewees are each distilled into the three characters on stage, with the actors giving subtle and nuanced performances to bring them to life. Rather than feeling disjointed, the testimonies have been sown together in a way that you could really believe that these were the voices of just three people.
The cast – all born after the events of 11th May 1985 – do an exceptional job of capturing the different ways that people responded to the events of that day and show a remarkable maturity around such a difficult subject, broaching it with sensitivity and respect. After hearing how these three characters all came to be there, the build up to the fire and the events that unfold once it has taken hold are delivered to the audience in a way that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, peaking with radio commentary from the ground that day.
For a play that does so much to keep alive the memories of those that perished, it could delve more into the long term aftermath of the event but the duo of Gemma Wilson and Matt Stevens- Woodhead have created something that does an incredible job of memorialising the events of the day without wallowing in them or resorting to grandiose. While providing an unflinching narrative of the events of that day, it never feels sensationalist. Despite this year being the 30th anniversary of the disaster, one of the characters says late on that this is just another year for those inside Bradford who were impacted and that the fact it is a round number means it should be remembered no more or less than any other year – that is to say, that this should be remembered full stop.
Each character looks upon the events of that day with different eyes; one trying to downplay the personal impact while regaling every detail; one remembering the horror, acknowledging it and relieved but clearly troubled, and one who tries to reconcile the chaos with the small elements of positivity to come out the other side. Add in the intimacy of the venue and you can almost visualise it, such is the ability of the cast to convey the little details that stick in the memory of the eyewitnesses, like the smells, the sounds and the heat.
The strength of the local community and the Yorkshire spirit are held up to show how the people of Bradford have not let it define them and looking it as a chance to rebuild, for example, one character refers to the advances that have seen the Bradford Burns Research Unit become a world leader in this field, with all profits from this show going to the Unit. Despite this year being the 30th anniversary of the disaster, one of the characters says late on that this is just another year for those inside Bradford who were impacted and that the fact it is a round number means it should be remembered no more specially than any other year – that is to say, that this should be remembered full stop.
The play ends with the names of those killed are read out before the actors leave the stage without a bow. It’s a fitting end for a show that seems to highlight the best of the Yorkshire spirit – fairly low key, just moving on without too much fuss but always making sure to remember what happened and trying to see the light in a time where there seems only to be smoke. For everything that is understated in the performance, it is certainly a show that knows how to pack an emotional punch.