The Killing of Sophie Lancaster: a tragedy that continues to haunt
There are the sounds of children playing as the audience files in, shouts and laughter; it could be a playground in a park. With the knowledge of what we are about to see, the sounds are eerie, sinister.
It is a tragedy that continues to haunt. Sophie Lancaster died in August 2007 aged 20, following a gang attack on her and her partner Rob in Stubbylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire. She had just passed her A-levels, and was attacked because she dressed differently. Her mother says in the play: “I was quite proud of her. I thought she looked lovely.”
Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, with poetry by Simon Armitage and words by Sophie’s mother, Sylvia, began life as a radio play, before being transformed into a stage production at the Studio of the Royal Exchange theatre in 2012. This year it has returned to the Studio, gone on a tour of community venues in the north-west, and continued with seven performances at the Southbank Centre in London.
It is a stark, simple production. Armitage’s words are discreet, unobtrusive, effective. Sophie’s mother, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh (the sadly missed Hayley in Coronation Street) talks of her “dark fairy” becoming a Goth around the age of 11: “She needed that channel, for her individuality.” Sophie, played by Rachel Austin, prowls around the stage, always smiling. She talks of meeting her “perfectly weird” boyfriend Rob, and finding they were “both in league with the colour black”.
She recounts their happy few months together in a dingy flat, and becomes articulate, poetic, confident of her own voice, as she embraces “all of the human race, in its crazy paradise”.
Then comes a summer night, the night of the attack. Sophie lists the typical images of a park, “the Victorian dream … strains of a band … the ice-cream stand … Friday night lovers out for a stroll”. And the dark side, too, “where wolves ran wild, where alchohol poisoned the watering hole”. Sophie and Rob encounter “a gang … a mob … a pack” , “the boot coming in, again and again”, before the last moments of consciousness, when “heavens whirl” and “sirens wail”.
We are not spared the details of her time in hospital, nor should we be, before the decision was taken to switch off Sophie’s life-support machine, after brain scans had revealed the awful truth. Almost the only thing that is recognisable about her face is the logo and tread of a trainer shoe upon it. She had curled up into a ball in a vain attempt to ward off the blows: “The black roses that bloom on my arms and legs / are the bitter bruises of self-defence.”
Some of the audience needed time to compose themselves before they left at the end of this very moving play. Sophie had just completed her A-levels. I found myself thinking of the William Golding novel, Lord of the Flies, with its story of children turning upon themselves after being marooned on a desert island. At one time it was a set text; I have no idea if it still is.
Sophie’s last words in the play are: “Now make this known.” We must continue to do so.
The Sophie Lancaster Foundation was set up by her mother Sylvia and others in her memory. It is a charity that focuses “on creating respect for and understanding subcultures in our communities”, and works with politicians and police “to ensure individuals who are part of subcultures are protected by the law”.
PHOTOGRAPH: ROBERT MALTBY