On the night of 11th August 2007, after spending a quiet summer evening at a friend’s house, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend, Rob, were beaten into comas in an act of savagery bought on by nothing more than the perpetrators distaste for the couple’s appearance. Sophie never recovered, and died weeks later in her hospital bed.
Simon Armitage’s response and elegy for Sophie was originally written in 2011 for BBC Radio 4, and is made up of interviews with Sophie’s mother, Sylvia, spliced with Armitage’s poetry. This production has been reimagined for the stage and features Coronation Street’s Julie Hesmondhalgh as Sylvia, her performance marked by a quiet stoicism underpinned by heartbreaking emotional gravity; Rachel Austin plays Sophie in a compelling, Puck-like manner, strengthened by her grasp of the verse, which lingers, ghostly, in the air during the play’s quieter moments.
With crimes such as these, the foray of the court room and ensuing media frenzy means the multiplicity of voices often drowns out recognition of the one that is most painfully and markedly absent: that of the victim. Armitage’s challenge and ultimate triumph is not only to place Sophie back at the heart of her story, but to give her a voice that sings out. Lyrically beautiful and poetically muscular, there is, as Sophie says ‘not an ounce of fat on mind or limb’, an idea that extends to the piece’s staging as well as language; an armchair for Sylvia, a bench for Sophie, who flutters around the perimeters of the space, beautifully but painfully accepting of the ‘crazy parade’ of humanity.
The overwhelming injustice of the story is all that is needed to carry the piece, and Sarah Frankcom and Susan Robert’s minimal theatricality allows for a clarity and a straightforwardness that is both respectful and necessary, piercing straight to the audience’s heart.
Hate crimes of this nature are tragically common, perhaps the inevitable result of a society that defines people by their difference and places so much emphasis on the superficial. These are attitudes which clearly need addressing, and the play is firmly within the spirit of the charity set up by Sylvia in Sophie’s name, which works to eradicate prejudice and intolerance of subcultures and alternative lives. Each retelling of the story deepens this effort; we can learn from it and be moved by it, even as the attempt to find some form of release feels as if it will never be complete. Real justice will always elude Sophie’s family, and the absence that that the play tries to fill will never go away, but with each fresh retelling, with each new listener to Sophie’s story, there is another tiny triumph.