The Venn diagram containing those who enjoy watching football and those who enjoy watching theatre might not have the largest overlap in the world. However, no prior knowledge of football is required to appreciate this powerful piece of verbatim drama. For those who do enjoy the sport, it’s simply an added bonus.
A touching account of community strength and everyday heroism
The 56 recounts the Bradford City Stadium Disaster of the 11th May 1985, when a fire ripped through one of the wooden stands during the last match of the season. Perhaps somewhat overshadowed in the national memory by events like Hillsborough and Heysel, it was nevertheless a poignant day that led to the future improvement of football stadium safety across the country. Using testimonies from survivors, the play presents the accounts and memories of three individuals in a verbatim style. Alternating between monologues and set on a plain wooden football stand, it is this simplicity that is the greatest strength of the production.
The three young actors give incredibly composed performances, with Corinna Wilson in particular standing out with a simultaneously believable and sympathetic performance. The build-up to the event and recollection of the fire itself is devastatingly effective, particularly when used in conjunction with a real recording of football commentators watching the fire unfold.
The potent narrative does, however, peak midway through and the recollection of the aftermath does not have quite the same depth or strength as the earlier material. It feels slightly empty in comparison, occasionally bordering on platitudes about Yorkshire spirit when a more in-depth examination of the long-term effect on these characters would have been more engaging. There were also some odd musical cues that jarred slightly and disturbed the immersion in the verbatim.
Despite this, the production overwhelming succeeds in its task to bring the story of this day to life. The ending of the play faithfully recounts all 56 names of the deceased in alphabetical order of family names, with a moving impact. But perhaps more importantly, it brings the stories of those not traditionally told in theatrical settings to audiences who need to hear them. In a decade when all football fans were tarred with the label of ‘hooligans’, The 56 instead presents a touching account of community strength and everyday heroism.