As the background audio plays out with sounds of playground laughter an eerie silence of respectful anticipation falls over the audience. Eyes, first to the floor, and then to the stage to witness a piece of real theatre with so much resting on it's shoulders that anything less than complete emotional involvement would be an injustice.
Few people are unfamiliar with Sophie Lancaster's story. A 20 year-old promising A Level graduate who was kicked into a coma in a vicious, unprovoked attack as she cradled her boyfriend's bloodied and broken head in her arms. A savagery so brutal that it left the imprint of a trainer on her face.
What had begun as a few had become a gang, had become a mob and with shouts of "Let's get the moshers!" a merciless attack born out of ignorance and intolerance had unleashed monsters from the shadows of the park. The pair was found unconscious and unrecognisable, lying side by side. Days later Sophie died from her injuries.
Originally scribed as a radio play — for which it won the BBC Audio and Music Best Speech Programme of the Year award — Black Roses was adapted for the stage following huge acclaim. It returns to the Royal Exchange under the direction of Sarah Frankcom and Susan Roberts for a sell-out run ahead of a North West Tour.
The play is a two-sided tale: a harrowing hate crime and the effect of death on those left behind. Through the words of Sophie's mother Sylvia Lancaster, Julie Hesmondhalgh delivers an elegy to Sophie that is equal measures of candid remembrance and inconsolable grief. Her words are interlaced with the award-winning Simon Armitage's poem in a sorrowful conversation through which Rachel Austin tells Sophie's story. Both performers are outstanding.
Reprising a role that convinced her to swap the cobbles of Coronation Street for the stage Hesmondhalgh summons unwavering conviction from deep within the empty despair of a maternal soul. Rachel Austin dressed in raggedy black, back-combed hair, adorned with black lipstick exposes frenzied energy and quiet vulnerability in a mesmerising and tasteful testament.
Amanda Stoodley's set design is symbolic of the contrast between the present and the after-life. The characters never touch — although they reach out to — but are separated in different worlds as they try to make sense of the how and why. "Something in their lives despises ours. The difference between us is what they can't stand". This play renders an emotional connection so deep that it moves the audience to tears.
As bitter scars of Black Roses bloomed on her bruised and battered body, even in the case of art imitating life, death can be difficult to watch. But the understated power of this play transcends choking enlightenment with a determination to disseminate Sophie's story and to Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred & Intolerance Everywhere. They are doing it for S.O.P.H.I.E. and in everlasting silence her voice can still be heard.
Black Roses continues until 8 March.
- Sarah Bloomer