Black Roses, The Studio, Royal Exchange, Manchester



Sophie Lancaster, a beautiful, intelligent, different young woman died in an unspeakably violent way, kicked to death so ferociously that the imprint of her killer’s trainers was left on both her cheeks. A diamond pattern.

That the story of her death should have quietly drifted away, barely making it beyond the local television news, is testament to the way difference is viewed. (Sophie and her boyfriend were both Goths and suffered the same, brutal attack because of it.)

The story screams out now, though, from the stillness and smallness of a dark, spare studio space, in the play which takes its title from the term of endearment Sylvia Lancaster always had for her daughter.

This is a 45-minute performance; no stops, no accoutrements, no curtain call. In Sylvia (Julie Hesmondhalgh) we have a mother taking up an armchair, taking us into her confidence and taking us, in a beautifully calibrated performance, through the story of ‘our Soph’ – the girl whose boyfriend’s yellow boots were certainly very yellow and who had to be dragged around Bury market of a Saturday. “I don’t know if you know Bury market?” Sylvia asks. We laugh - even though we know what is coming.  

Hesmondhalgh’s words are based on Sylvia Lancaster’s own conversations with the writer Simon Armitage, which formed his initial award-winning Radio 4 play, interspersed with his poetic sequence written in the voice of Sophie which underlines his presence as one of this nation’s most original and outstanding writers. “Was it such a crime,” Sophie asks, “to be growing up, at my own pace, in my own way, in my own sweet time?”  

Sophie (Rachel Austin) stands on an elevated stage above her mother – no eye contact until the shattering conclusion – on a narrow, mud scarred stage of grass depicting the Lancashire park to which she was lured and killed. She captures an unquenchable spirit and a sense of what was lost when Sophie was kicked to death, though it is behind her mother’s haunted eyes that the searing pathos resides.

Sophie Lancaster did not die in vain. Her mother established a foundation in her name, which has worked with police and entered hundreds of schools to deliver the message that difference is good. But Sylvia Lancaster would give all that up tomorrow to have her daughter back. “Not only do they take your daughter,” she says. “But they take your life with them as well.”

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