The Theatre of Hillsborough

The most melodramatic and tragic event that I saw unfold was the ill-fated FA Cup Semi Final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool

In this post I am going to be a theatre critic and if that means 50% of readers go elsewhere, then so be it.

This post links a couple of memorable theatrical performances that are so different, and yet have a similarity in the message that they continue to send out.

To be a theatre critic for the day, I need to explain what I consider to be theatre and why.  I rarely visit a cinema or watch television.  I need my entertainment with a personal connection. Both sport and musical events are also theatre, whether the venue is a stadium or an open space.

In fact the most melodramatic, epic and tragic event that I saw unfold was the ill-fated FA Cup Semi Final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool in 1989.

To stand on a packed terrace and watch the events slowly develop over a 30 minute period was understandably memorable. Being there; seeing the whole stage-show, the complicated mix of choreography and sound.  Audience participation even added to the surreal experience.  A narrated documentary or news feature  can never match the complete theatrical experience of ‘being there’.

We stood, as part of the audience, transfixed

You see in that 30 minute period, we stood, as part of the audience, transfixed.

The main stage was the pitch.

Initially an empty green space, then occupied by 22 actors, half in red and half in white. A choreographer in black. The opening scene was only a couple of minutes long but was exciting and frantic.

Then some kind of incident began to unfold backstage. The audience were confused, then irritable. The stage was cleared. Irritation became frustration, then anger.

The audience began singing songs to each other. The songs were derogatory but kept everyone occupied. The stage was now busy again.  A cast of tens then hundreds, all animated and busy; this time all wore blue.

Blue denim, blue uniforms, and blue lights!

All became clear.  Ironically, now that the stage was occupied by hundreds of people, the script was easier to follow. Lifeless people were carried on advertising boards and placed near to us.

Now many of you will know the story of Hillsborough. It is a dark day in English history. The only advantage I had of being in the audience at the ‘opening performance’, is one abiding memory. As we watched people attempting resuscitation (stage front), my attention was drawn to a man who appeared centre stage and ran towards us. He stopped at the edge of the penalty box. He was about 50 years of age and dressed in denim. He looked towards us, his audience.  He spoke but no one heard his words. However,  his hand gestures were clear and unmistakable. They said, ‘Come and join me on stage where I want to fight you’

I turned to my friends and said ‘Time to go’.

Liverpool supporter - Hillsborough disaster: A fan sits at the front of the Leppings Lane stand where his fellow supporters lost their lives

On Valentine Day 2014, my act of ‘spontaneity’ was to take Lisa to Nottingham Playhouse to see the penultimate performance of My Judy Garland Life. I had booked the tickets weeks before, so I was clearly not acting on impulse. However in my case, I knew that the timing of this trip (to England’s finest regional theatre), would be so well received by Lisa that I would be excused a few misjudgments later in the year!

I first knew of Lisa’s connection to Judy Garland in 2005. Despite Lisa being born the same year as Judy’s death, she must have built up affection for her from childhood.

I remember being in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Fringe, sitting in the sunshine when a woman came passed smiling. Lisa acknowledged her as ‘Judy’,  as though they were old school-friends. This oddly dressed woman was in fact Isabelle Georges, a French entertainer who was performing a show ‘Une Etoile et Moi’ in tribute to the life and music of Judy Garland. We saw the show a few days later.

So, the world premiere of My Judy Garland Life in my hometown on Valentines Day, ‘had to be done’ as they say.

Now in reality, I am not qualified to be a theatre critic. I’ll leave that to the people who were sat behind us. They seemed to have a view on the career potential of different cast members. They seemed too opinionated to just sit back and be entertained, and entertained we were!

We were treated to a seamless and varied visual feast. Information and facts were communicated to us by clever video clips and soundbites. The cast of 5 were superb individually but allowed the whole experience to focus on the exhillarating and manic individual that Judy Garland was. Her portrayal as the complete entertainer who connected with her audience came across very strong. As the show progressed, it seemed as though we were all under her spell. The scene where she befriends some London cabbies and opens up to them stands out. For all of her talent, that she was in reality a commodity, vulnerable, used and abused by people around her from childhood to Hollywood icon. The same people who should have helped her and protected her.

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Two very different theatrical events, but the same legacy.

Judy Garland died prematurely and was let down by people in the US entertainment industry, who should have  protected her from harm.

The Hillsborough victims died prematurely and were let down by people in the UK Football Industry, who should have protected them from harm.

Here’s a special edition of BBC Football Focus on the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough

Thankyou for reading