Monday, 24 March 2014

Black Roses, Royal Exchange Studio 8/3/14

“On August 11 2007, Sophie Lancaster was beaten unconscious in Stubbeylee Park, Bacup and later died from her injuries in hospital. She was 20 years old, had just passed her A levels and was working out what to do with her life. She was killed because she dressed differently” 

The above is a an extract from the playbill from this extraordinarily powerful play, on what I think is its third outing at the Royal Exchange Studio, before embarking on a tour of community venues and a short run at the South Bank Centre in London.

I remember hearing about this sickening attack on Sophie and her boyfriend at the time, and the subsequent trial. When I initially heard about the subject matter of this piece I did have my doubts, is it ‘seemly’ to seek to make entertainment from such a horrible and relatively recent event, did I really want to subject myself to something so potentially upsetting. But the things I heard following its debut made me want to go and see it for myself.

What has been created in this piece is something quite special. It is full of contrasts, most strikingly in the delivery. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Sophie’s mum Sylvia, addresses the audience in a realistic and conversational style, using Sylvia’s own words, as she remembers Sophie’s life, and the tragic circumstances of her death. Sophie (Rachel Austin) tells her story through a series of poems conjuring up some beautiful images, and she moved lightly around the performance area like some kind of delicate sprite. The main focus of the play is more about who Sophie was, a celebration of her life, her strengths, her individuality and potential and what she brought into the lives of the people she loved.

When the narrative moves towards the events of the night of the attack and beyond, the testimony of Sylvia is absolutely heartbreaking, and shockingly realistic. It’s hard to witness, but excellently played. And the beautiful poetry of Sophie is in stark contrast to the pain and fear that she experienced, and the hell her family were going through.
Austin and Hesmondhalgh are both brilliant in their contrasting roles. Hesmondhalgh is measured, conversational and controlled, and when she falters as she describes the latter events it is completely heartbreaking. Austin has an amazing stage presence as Sophie and a wonderful lightness of delivery. 

The bringing together of Sylvia Lancaster’s own words and Simon Armitage’s poetry has been done in a very clever way, carefully balancing telling Sophie’s story and celebrating her as a person. The piece has a very important message, but it gets in across in an understated and measured way, and is all the more effective for that. 

You could assume that the message that the play is trying to get across is only aimed at one section of society, but it is far wider than that. It really makes you think about how you perceive and treat others, the assumptions you make when you see someone who looks a bit ‘different’. Whilst only the minority would use this as an excuse for violence, I do think it has something to say to all of us. I hope this can be seen by a wide section of people as it’s a very important lesson for us all.

Following Sophie’s death a charity was set up in her name, The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, with a focus on creating respect for, and understanding of, subcultures in our communities. Details of the charity and its work can be found at

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