Played out

wsc340A verbatim play has been touring the country which tells survivors’ stories of the Valley Parade fire of 1985 in Bradford, and Tom Hocking went along

There is a line towards the end of The 56 when one of the characters says that the city of Bradford “wrapped its arms around itself” in the disaster’s aftermath. The line evokes the coming together of a community, but also suggests why it was regularly called football’s “forgotten” tragedy. The city’s strength to bury, mourn and remember their dead but to try to “get on” as best they could inadvertently masked its impact.

The creators of The 56 hope to go some way to changing that. “Many people in Bradford would disagree that the disaster had been forgotten,” says Matt Stevens-Woodhead, who co-wrote and directed the play alongside Bradford City fan Gemma Wilson for the FYSA theatre company. “But outside Yorkshire it hasn’t been discussed as much as it should have. Writing the play was a way to counter that.”

The play grew out of a chance meeting at a Hillsborough memorial between Stevens-Woodhead, Wilson and a man who was at both disasters. He commented that Bradford was often ignored, a view which resonated with Wilson. They went to the 29th Bradford memorial and started to collate interviews, not just from fans who were there but firemen, players and others. The play is verbatim, with all the words taken from over 60 of those interviews. “If we wrote something ourselves we would never accurately portray what happened that day,” Stevens-Woodhead says.

Following three narrators – a man in the main stand near where the fire started (played by Tom Lodge), a woman at the other end of that stand (Danielle Phillips) and a young boy watching from the Kop (Will Taylor) – the stories are harrowing, not just because of the recollections of the fire but also their characters’ familiarity to any football regulars.

No names are given, but Lodge’s memories are focused on who sits where and the peculiarities of the day (such as the trophy presentation before the match). Phillips’ character cracks jokes and the audience finds themselves laughing, almost at ease. Taylor talks of it as a rare family outing.

In the background lies a simple set; a few rows of wooden seats with painted numbers, lit in an orange glow. In quieter moments your eyes wander over those seats, wondering who sat there and whether they survived. There are no shock tactics, the testimonies are chilling enough. Lodge talks about the strange sensation of his seat getting warmer, his glasses fog up, breathing is “like drinking treacle” except it is going straight into his lungs. Phillips describes hearing a scream and turning to see a fellow fan bursts into flames and fall through the floor. Taylor’s character, nine years old, watches, unable to look away.

The 56 acts as a memorial to the people who died and those who suffered for years in virtual silence. “We’d find that people had gone through this in their minds,” Stevens-Woodhead says. “I think many people did want to speak about it and it was a relief because they had never been provided with that opportunity before.”

The team behind the project see it as their responsibility to pass these stories on. FYSA have run workshops about the fire in schools, educating thousands of children about the disaster. They have raised around £2,000 for the Bradford Burns Unit and will be taking the play back to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

The play ends, fittingly, with a recorded voice reading the names of the 56 people who died and while there was never a question that the city would forget their tragedy, this piece of theatre is another step towards the rest of the country belatedly acknowledging, and perhaps sharing, Bradford’s grief.

From WSC 340 June 2015