Not long after midnight on Saturday 24 August 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend Robert Maltby were brutally attacked by a group of teenagers in a park in Bacup, Lancashire. Lancaster’s injuries were so severe that went into a coma, and 13 days later she died. She was 20 years old. The only known provocation for the attack was that the pair were in full goth dress.
It’s a tragic story of intolerance, one you may already know. Are there still people who could learn from it? According to director Susan Roberts: “It’s a story that’s so incredibly important that you should never stop telling it, over and over again.”
Last year, in her capacity as an executive BBC Radio drama producer, Roberts was responsible for Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster. It combined a poetic monologue from Lancaster’s perspective written by Simon Armitage and an interview with Lancaster’s mother Sylvia. When the play was first broadcast on Radio 4, the response from listeners was overwhelming.
“As well as the usual Radio 4 listeners, people were stopping in their cars; they were stopping doing what they were doing because they got so caught up in it,” says Roberts. “I’ve been directing drama on radio for 5 years and I’ve never had such a response from the audience to anything that I’ve done.”
Subsequently the play was garlanded with major radio awards. Given the strength of this acclaim, and the importance of the subject, the question quickly arose of whether it might have a life beyond the radio broadcast.
“In the feedback I got a couple of people who were involved in the theatre coming to me and saying, look, we’re interested in putting this on the stage. I suppose that planted a thought. But for me there was something about giving this story to a really important national theatre, here in the back garden, if you like, of where it actually happened. Staging it here in the north, at the Royal Exchange. So I then approached the Exchange and they were completely up for it.”
The resulting stage version of Black Roses, co-directed by Roberts and Royal Exchange artistic director Sarah Frankcom, is being launched at the Exchange this week. It features Rachel Austin reprising her radio role as Lancaster, and Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh as her mother Sylvia. The unusual nature of the original radio piece posed some problems in the process of adaptation.
“The major and most obvious thing is that it was Sylvia’s voice that you heard on the radio. We had to think about turning it into more of a verbatim theatre piece, using Sylvia’s words but giving that to an actress. Sarah and I talked a lot about whether anything was going to change and both of us felt sure that the words should be the same. No words have changed at all.”
Nor has the play’s impact been diluted. “It was such a powerful piece of radio. You set off on a journey with all the people involved in the theatre production and deep down inside there’s a tiny little grain of you thinking, is it going to work? We’re currently halfway through rehearsals and my God, it’s still really powerful, but in a very different way.”
This production has the chance to relate Lancaster’s story to a new audience. Roberts is sure that drama can connect with people enough to affect them, and in the circumstances, that’s very much to be hoped.
“When people come and enter a play you want them to leave it in a different frame of mind. You want to make people think. It’s not about lecturing. It’s about their own consumption and analysing of what’s gone on in front of them or what they’ve heard.”
Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, 19-29 September, Manchester Royal Exchange
Support the Sophie Lancaster Foundation: www.sophielancasterfoundation.com
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