Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster sets out to redress the balance and restore Sophie's humanity. It is subtly, but utterly, devastating.
The play originated on radio yet joint directors Sarah Frankcom and Susan Roberts succeed in making this a completely theatrical experience. Appropriately for a play with two directors the show offers a series of contrasts. The safety of home compared to a hostile world is conveyed in Amanda Stoodley's set. The comfy front room of Sophie’s mother Sylvia (Julie Hesmondalgh), made up of a well-stuffed chair and worn carpet, sits like a refuge in the centre of the shabby municipal park where the attack happened.
The personal recollections of Sylvia are offset by the poetry of Simon Armitage written in the character of Sophie. Although Armitage’s elegy celebrates Sophie’s individuality its tone is universal. Change a few words here and there – musical preferences and dietary choice – and he could be describing you or I. The restraint of the poetry makes the descriptions of Sophie’s death all the more horrifying "I’m hardly a pulse… a trace, a thread, a waste, a past…"
The play boasts two very different but equally powerful performances. Barefoot and in full Goth gear Rachel Austin paces the stage like a restless sprit. She performs, rather than recites, the poetry revelling in the descriptions of Sophie’s triumphs during her brief life and trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
Julie Hesmondalgh gives a naturalistic and tremendously moving performance. After hesitatingly describing the aftermath of Sophie’s death she becomes animated leaning forward eagerly to share with the audience anecdotes about her daughter like any proud parent. There is no sense of conflict between mother and daughter, only the natural progression of a child developing and moving on. As the mood of the play darkens Hesmondalgh becomes more agitated and, unlike Austin’s movements, her pacing lacks any feeling of peace and her gradual yet dignified descent into despair is completely heartbreaking.
Black Roses is not an easy play to watch. The emotions it provokes are raw and distressing. But audiences are unlikely to see anything so powerful or moving this year. It is a beautiful tribute to a life cut short.
- Dave Cunningham