Writer: Simon Armitage with accounts from Sylvia Lancaster
Director: Sarah Frankom & Susan Roberts
Reviewer: Sally Cinnamon
The Public Reviews Rating:
Flash forward to March and the award-winning Radio 4 drama, Black Roses, which included interviews with Sophie’s mother, Sylvia and poetry provided by Simon Armitage. When it aired, there was an overwhelming response from the public; messages of condolences for the family, praise for the piece and there, the idea for a stage version was born.
The Royal Exchange Studio is fittingly intimate for the production; a two-hander with Rachel Austin as Sophie and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Sylvia. The set is simple with a grass walkway, a park bench and an armchair. Here, the two characters tell the story of Sophie from birth to her horrific death. Her mother’s accounts teach us about Sophie’s life: her personality, her quirks and her charms. There’s straightforwardness to these accounts. It’s unfussy and emotive without ever being sentimental. Sophie, ghost-like, wanders through the grass barefoot and free.
The piece is part verbatim and at times feels like we’ve accidentally stumbled in to the front room of Sylvia, who sat in her armchair with a cup of tea and a packet of cigarettes, doesn’t mind us being there, in fact, she wants us to stay, to listen and to learn.
There’s no doubt the evening is an emotionally charged one. It’s beautifully written and acted and it’s difficult to find fault or to want to look for it. The original radio piece was about the words. Its power lay in what was heard. Indeed, for a girl whose life was cut short partly because of how she looked, it seemed a fitting tribute.
This is where the production falls short. Frankom’s direction weakens the power of the original piece. It flimsily leads two fine actresses and tentatively tiptoes around the subject matter. Of course, how does a director handle this sort of story without offending or cheapening? It’s tricky stuff and there is a fine line between tribute and travesty. The missed opportunities come in the poetic monologues from Sophie. Here, there seems to be restraint and reluctance rather than celebration and this is a great shame.
That aside, this is certainly a show that every young person should be encouraged to see. It would travel well around schools and youth centres. Sophie Lancaster’s story is a tragic one but Black Roses is a bitter-sweet celebration.