FYSA Theatre have had an eclectic couple of years. After forming in Sheffield in 2012, they’ve produced a myriad of shows including The Last Five Years and The Lord of the Flies, and had a sell-out six-night run at last years’ Edinburgh Fringe, with a 5* production of Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild.
This year, though, they seem to have had something of a political makeover. The 56 is a new piece of verbatim theatre which, on the anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster, explores real-life testimony from people who were at the Bradford City Fire, when 56 people were killed at the football stadium in 1985.
Taking a risk
There’s always something of a risk involved in recreating real-life disaster stories, particularly as a member of a young company, but within the first few minutes of the show, any trepidations I had were gone.
The young three-person cast clearly have a lot of talent between them, and there has obviously been a lot of work done on characterisation which has paid off. Tom Lodge is endearingly nervous as a man reliving how he attempted to escape the flames, as thousands of other men, women and children attempted to do the same.
Will Taylor brings a childlike innocence to proceedings, as he tells almost eagerly of his excitement as a child at the final match of the season, which turned slowly into fear as the fire took hold. The stand-out performance for me, though, was LAMDA student Danni Philips.
As a young girl who attempted to help others out of the stadium, she is a true Yorkshire lass with a dry and brilliant sense of humour. She adds a much-needed brevity to the script, but also conveys fear and loss by making the subtlest of changes in manner and speech.
With verbatim theatre there’s always a difficult choice to make. Do you stick solely to monologues and remain rigidly true to the retelling? Or do you stylise the speeches and add drama to the performance as well?
FYSA Theatre, under the direction of Matthew Woodhead, have reached a happy compromise. The play opens with a recording of match commentator John Helm slowly realising that the fire has spread, and finally, signing off to “get out of here” while he still can.
Then the on-stage monologues begin, each one cleverly chosen to show a different stadium perspective. Lodge’s character is at the heart of the fire and attempting to escape via a narrow walkway at the top of the grounds. Taylor’s young boy is down in the standing area, watching from a distance as the crowd slowly begin to realise what’s happening.
And Philip’s teenage girl is one level up from the pitch, as she and her friend begin to direct people away from the walkway at the top, and down over the 7ft drop onto the field.
The monologues intersect each other and manage to build a picture from the start of the match, to the weeks and months of recovery after the fire, which keeps the audience gripped throughout.
Room for improvement
Although I understand the decision to stage the production as a series of static and intersecting monologues, there was a part of me that would have liked to have seen more movement on-stage.
The opening feature of the match recording was a nice touch, and the final moments which feature a man reading aloud a list of the names of the dead, add a gravity and somberness to the performance that can’t fail to be felt deeply by everyone watching.
Even so, in my opinion the only thing missing from this production was movement, even if that were created by one character standing up and pacing, or by a clever piece of lighting to change the tone of the piece as it progressed.
Ultimately, though, I was impressed. This is a theatre company in its infancy which has taken a risk, tackled a true-to-life loss, and done so sensitively and with a great deal of promise. The cast are a talented group, and their characters are well-realised, engaging, and sympathetically performed.
In the end, if you’re looking for a moving and political piece of theatre done well, then go and watch The 56. You won’t be disappointed.
FYSA Theatre’s The 56 is performed from Aug 1st – 12th, and 14th – 25th, at 13:55 (1 hour) in Underbelly’s The Dairy Room at Bristo Square.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.