Burnley riots play banned ... in Burnley

Theatres refuse to perform work that displays town in a 'negative light'
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The Independent Culture

It is based on the true stories of white and Asian teenagers from Burnley attempting to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the 2001 riots, and has received widespread acclaim for its portrayal of the town's racial tensions.

But while the play Mixed Up North has struck a chord with critics and audiences across the country, it cannot be seen by the local community in Burnley on which it is based.

The production, a joint venture between the Out of Joint theatre company and the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, has become the focus of controversy in Burnley which has left its director, Max Stafford-Clark, fearing that the council may have advised theatres against staging the show because it portrayed the town in a "negative light".

Two venues in Burnley declined to put on the play after showing initial interest. Burnley Youth Theatre said it had accidentally "double-booked" itself, and a local school theatre said it would cost too much money to stage the play during half term.

Burnley council contacted officials at nearby Bolton council, where the play was shown at numerous venues, to alert them of the play's contents. John Blackmore, executive director of the Octagon Theatre and chair of Out of Joint, claimed that at one point the council wanted any mention of Burnley removed from the script.

The play, which has toured north-west England since September and is currently showing at London's Wilton's Music Hall, revolves around a group of mutually suspicious Asian and white teenagers who join a drama club.

Through the club, they reveal their personal stories and discuss tensions in the area, from the issue of arranged marriage to the lure of the BNP and the grooming of a white girl by older Asian men. The characters were developed with the help of 36 teenagers from the area who told their own stories, including those of rape, which were partly dramatised without revealing their identities.

Mr Stafford-Clark, who has worked with playwrights including David Hare and Caryl Churchill, accused Burnley council of attempting to interfere with the drama. "They were frightened that it would show a negative image of their town," he said. "I think their concerns were hot air. The people of Burnley who got to see it in Bolton were thrilled to see their world depicted."

He added: "Some members of Burnley council did not like what characters in the play say about the council's policies and wanted to change this. We thought this undue interference and were not prepared to change these elements. On the other hand, when performing at our nearest venue to Burnley, we changed a particularly sensitive storyline."

Mike Waite, who oversees the council's community cohesion, dismissed accusations of censorship. He said: "The council has not blocked any independent organisation from staging the show – we do not have the power to do so."

But he did suggest that the play had caused some affront in the local community. "The reason for the unease and distaste that some people in the town have expressed about the play is that a number of people in Burnley hold the view that the writer and director failed to honour clear commitments they made to use 'real life' stories carefully, and in ways which avoided risk to actual people being identified closely with characters in the play," he said.

Mr Stafford-Clark said all the teenagers involved had been consulted after social workers raised concerns, and those who had expressed worries were allowed to change their part in the drama.