On April 15th 1989, 96 Liverpool fans went to watch their team play an FA Cup semi-final vs Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, and never returned. David Cain’s Truth Street, hosted by the Spark Factory at Sweet Waterfront 1 as part of the Brighton Fringe festival, was an attempt to make sense of that tragedy through the memories of those whose lives it changed.
The performance began with The Bangles’ Eternal Flame – number one at the time – and an omnipotent narrator reciting the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
George Rennie, Truth Street’s sole actor, then entered the stage and began describing the disaster through a series of real-life eyewitness testimonies.
Names were sometimes read out by the narrator, but it became difficult to follow who was speaking, and the power of the words often outweighed the importance of knowing who they belonged to.
It felt like being hit with blow after blow of trauma. The fractured voices gave a sense of the scale of the tragedy, each one enduring their own unique nightmare.
The multiple perspectives served to evoke the chaos and confusion as the authorities lost control of the situation and fans realised what grave danger they were in.
With palpable anguish, Rennie did an excellent job of delivering the graphic accounts of fans who were in the Leppings Lane pen, whose bodies were lifted, carried and contorted against their will.
Quotes from supporters forced to leave behind friends, relatives and partners were particularly difficult to listen to. “My whole life was in that one pen at that one time,” said one survivor.
Eyewitness testimony was interspersed with snatches of recorded commentary from the match. It is almost unfathomable now to hear trivial details of the game being described while innocent human beings were being crushed to death en masse just a few yards away.
The performance shone the spotlight on the unforgivable conduct of the police, and the media, who entered the Hillsborough gymnasium to photograph distraught relatives and disorientated survivors as bodies piled up next to them.
Hillsborough is one of the most vital stories of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s a story, primarily, of individual loss and suffering. But it’s also one of truth and injustice, and of the importance of holding power to account, however long it takes.
Truth Street doesn’t attempt to analyse what happened, it simply gives a voice to those who were ignored and suppressed for so long by the power of the political establishment.
By applying a narrative frame to disparate fragments of such extreme chaos and suffering, we begin to see a truth free of spin and manipulation. Condensing hundreds of eyewitness testimonies into 45 minutes and channeling them through a single actor served to make the recent Hillsborough inquests accessible, and deeply human.
The performance closed with victim statements from the inquests, including the agonising words of a widow of a father of five, set to a delicate piano backdrop. Even 26 years later, she still felt the need to clarify that he was not a hooligan, just an ordinary man who happened to like football.
Truth Street is raw, stark, and uncompromising, and that’s precisely why it succeeds. The reality of what happened at Hillsborough never gets easier to swallow, but Truth Street shows why it’s so important that we never stop telling – and reclaiming – the story on behalf of its victims and their families.