When the Bradford Fire Disaster happened, I was in the middle of what I feared at the time would be the story of the weekend, as Leeds United fans fought a pitched battle with their Birmingham City counterparts at St. Andrews on Saturday the 11th of May, 1985. A young fan died at Birmingham that day, killed when a wall collapsed amid disgraceful scenes. It seemed certain that the events of the day would create the usual lurid banner headlines. Some fans on both sides would be happy and excited about this; others, less so.
For my own part, I was utterly gutted that we’d lost by a goal to nil, sickened at the thought of yet more bad press for my club – and completely unaware that a lad had lost his life. On the way back to Yorkshire, it became clear that, in the light of the devastating events in Bradford, nobody would be talking about our game and its riot after all. It was a dreadful Saturday in what, with Heysel still to come, would be remembered as a tragically awful season.
On Friday last, three decades older and that much more hard-bitten and cynical, I attended a new drama staged in Barnsley, based on interviews with survivors of that day at Valley Parade almost thirty years ago. It recalled in detail some extremely sad memories and brought back some long-buried feelings arising out of that weekend so many years before. The review I have written of the play, which is entitled simply The 56, is reproduced below.
This review was originally published on The Public Reviews on 14th March 2015.
With the focus once again very much on the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster as the inquests re-open, re-visiting all of those mistakes and examples of scandalously covered-up incompetence – here, on the stark and minimalist stage of the Civic in Barnsley, was an almost unbearably vivid reminder of another football tragedy in Yorkshire, with another shattering death toll.
Four years before the Sheffield calamity, and 40 miles or so up the road in Bradford, an inferno destroyed the old wooden-construction main stand at Valley Parade, home of new Third Division Champions Bradford City. Disaster struck without warning as the Bantams took on Lincoln City in what should have been a joyous celebration of promotion and the league title. On the day though, the story was more of heroism and unbelievable bravery amid terrifying chaos as fire broke out and fan tried to help fan despite intense heat, choking smoke and the speed with which the blaze spread, engulfing the stand and trapping the unfortunates who tragically fled in the wrong direction. It was one of those occasions too horrible to recall and yet too salutary ever to be forgotten. A line in the verbatim text of this hard-hitting piece says it all:
“It was like a JFK moment, a Princess Diana moment. You’ll never forget where you were when you heard.”
The verbatim testimony nature of The 56 is at the core of what this work is all about. What is heard is no skilfully-crafted dramatic script – it is the actual accounts of survivors, those who were frantically involved on the day in escape and rescue. This lends a raw and visceral feel to the whole thing; the audience is aware at all times that these are real people giving their real and painful memories of events that really happened, and which affect them to this day. The way that the three actors handle this medium is admirable in the extreme. That quality of hearing words as they are formed in the mind of the witnesses is massively persuasive. The whole spectrum is there, from fond reminiscence of the innocently celebratory way that day started, through incredulous shock as events unfolded, so disastrously quickly, to grief, pain, even despair and a little bitterness – but with the pride of a city and a county which united in grief and loss to “just get on with it” as the long process of recovery began. It’s remorselessly impactful and almost uncomfortably inclusive.
The actors do all that could possibly be expected of them in terms of conveying the feelings and reactions of those survivors interviewed. As a piece of theatre, the effect is both harrowing and intensely evocative, with the increasingly convincing feeling of hearing about that awful day at first hand. The pace varies according to the mood of the moment; at times each character is lovingly sharing memories of the lead-up to that day and their love affair with a family football club, in relaxed and humorous monologue. But at other times, the dialogue comes at the audience pell-mell, the witnesses talking over each other as the confusion and bewilderment of developing tragedy is tellingly reproduced. And then it’s back to turn and turn about as each witness talks about the effect on their lives since that time, of the horrific memories they carry with them; mental scars are revealed as well as lasting shock and disbelief. But there is also the pride of getting on with life, of recovery – as club, stadium and city rose again in as literally Phoenix-like a manner as could be imagined.
It’s an appropriately minimalist production; the set is simple yet effective– a mute reminder of the wooden construction at the root of the disaster;the darkness of the backdrop conveys its own mood and message. The audience’s attention is drawn to the mesmeric interpretations of the cast who perform to pin-drop silence and a feeling of collectively held breath. As the testimony comes to a conclusion, the awful death toll – including, let us not forget, two fans of the other side that day, Lincoln City – is read out at funereal pace; a fitting tribute at the last to those who are no longer with us to give their own accounts. The audience reaction at the end is sombre but appreciative of what has been so consummately achieved.
In recognition of the thought-provoking nature of the evening, there was a Q&A session shortly after the end of the play itself. This gave a welcome insight into the creative process, with the actors and the director able and willing to enlarge upon what had motivated them and how they had approached the material so as to convey the testimony effectively, yet with immense respect.
This is a challenging piece, certainly not entertainment in the precise sense of the word. It sets out to remind, to enlighten and to pay tribute both to the dead and to those without whom that death toll would inevitably have been much higher. It tells of how individuals, a football club, a city and a county were struck by disaster, of how they conducted themselves so courageously on the day and of how they gradually recovered in the years to follow. In this, it is totally successful and – for those who wish to know more about what actually happened in Bradford on May 11th 1985, and how, and why – it’s a theatrical experience not to be missed.
The play was reviewed at the Civic, Barnsley on March 13th having previously been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Bradford itself; it is scheduled to tour various other venues until May 23 (Click here for dates and theatres). A collection is taken at each performance to raise money for the BCFC Burns Unit Appeal; donations to this most worthy cause may be made online here.