“Nobody dies in football matches in fires. It doesn’t happen.”
Matt Stevens-Woodhead, artistic director of FYSA Theatre, writes for Northern Soul about the genesis of the verbatim play, The 56: The Bradford City Fire & Testimony.
At 3.40pm on May 11, 1985 a small fire broke out in the main stand at Bradford City’s Valley Parade football ground during the final match of the season. Within four minutes the wooden structure was ablaze. Fifty-four Bradford City supporters and two Lincoln City fans lost their lives.
As Bradford City Football Club prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the blaze, Yorkshire-based FYSA Theatre aims to retell the tragedy of the disaster through the eyes of those who witnessed one of the darkest days in English footballing history.
The 56: The Bradford City Fire & Testimony debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014 and is about to embark on a national tour. With the support of Salford’s Lowry and The Civic in Barnsley, Yorkshire-based FYSA Theatre has been working in Bradford with survivors, emergency services and prolific sporting figures to bring untold testimonies to light.
The project first began to emerge after the creative team of FYSA Theatre attended the 25th memorial service of the Hillsborough Disaster at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground. Having studied at the University of Sheffield and grown up in the area, I have always been aware of the legacy and resonance that 1989 has to the city.
At the end of the memorial service we went to pay our respects on the pitch itself where we met a gentleman who had witnessed the Hillsborough Disaster and the Bradford City Fire. After a conversation, he remarked that it was interesting that, outside Yorkshire, one of the darkest days in Bradford’s history was often lost on the world of English football. As a Bradfordian and Bantam, this was something that particularly interested Gemma (FYSA’s resident writer), especially as we were approaching the 30th anniversary of the disaster. We both felt there was a sense that, as the survivors and witnesses of the disaster aged, it was important to create something which could educate a younger generation about the day.
On May 11, 2014, Gemma and I attended the memorial service of the fire to see if this was a view shared by some of the survivors and witnesses. After speaking to some of these figures – who very kindly agreed to give us their testimonies – we confirmed our slot at the Edinburgh Fringe and began working with members of the local footballing community in Bradford.
The piece is written in a verbatim style because we believe that the testimonies speak for themselves. The text is formed solely from the testimonies of those we have met with no embellishments. We quickly decided that the role of the actors was to act as a mouthpiece for the victims we met and honestly represent their experiences.
After working closely with witnesses and their families for over a month, we decided that the proceeds of the production should go towards the University of Bradford Burns Research and Plastic Surgery Unit. FYSA Theatre are thrilled to have raised more than £500 and we are working to raise £300,000 for the unit in aid of Bradford City Football Club’s 30th anniversary campaign. Alongside this we will be offering free theatre workshops to schools in the local area.
Since the project’s inception, we have worked with more than 60 members of the local community. In these eight months we have connected with supporters, representatives from the emergency services, broadcasters (John Helm and Tony De La Hunty) and prolific sporting figures (John Hendrie, Terry Yorath, John Helm, Peter Jackson, Trevor Cherry). With each interviewee having a story as unique and varied to tell as the next, we decided to amalgamate their voices into three cohesive stories to create a comprehensive impression of that day. The FYSA team are indebted to all members of the community who have so kindly opened their doors and given us a testimony of one of the most difficult day of their lives.
Over the past eight months, we have all been driven by a need to tell the story of the 56 fans who lost their lives. In order to ensure their legacy, the stories of their ageing contemporaries need to be heard. We hope that during the tour of The 56 we can honour them and ensure that May 11 is never forgotten.
By Matt Stevens-Woodhead, Artistic Director of FYSA Theatre
For information on tour dates, click here
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.