On April 15th 1989, in an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest there was a fatal crowd crush at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. Sadly, 97 lives were lost in the Hillsborough disaster. For one night only the theatrical drama 97+ is debuting at Liverpool Olympia in its first full length production having received rave reviews in its shorter form at Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Set in 2012, we meet Liverpool fans Steve (Leslie Longley) and John (Colin Kilbride) who are Hillsborough survivors, both who have clearly been struggling with the trauma endured since that tragic day. After a chance encounter, a friendship develops after their shared experience with both men fighting for the truth about what happened and to bring justice for all the lives lost.
With the show premiering in Liverpool this obviously adds an added depth of emotion to the proceedings especially as audience members discuss between them where they were on the day of the accident before the play begins. As the event is a real-life depiction several trigger warnings are made aware to audience members and will be referenced throughout this review including post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm and death.
As to be expected, due to the one-off nature of the event, the set is limiting but in no way impacts the performance. Each scene is set up next to one another allowing seamless movement from one to another with minimal disruption ensuring that none of the raw emotion is lost. It’s intriguing to wonder how the staging and lighting would look in a bigger scale production. This would only add further to this incredible production.

Written and directed by Tom Cain, the show has encapsulated the spirit of the Liverpudlian community, especially the resilience in the face of adversity. The characters stories cleverly intertwine with one another, taking audiences on a captivating journey throughout. This moving piece of theatre sets out to educate and raise awareness around the truth of the event regardless of what inaccuracies the press printed. 97+ aims to give the audience knowledge and understanding of the families still affected and involved in the Hillsborough disaster. This is complex and compelling writing at its best.
Each cast member’s delivery of the material complemented the story and added believably. Colin Kilbride as John delivers a multi layered performance dealing with constant post-traumatic stress disorder while sleeping. John is the driving force striving for justice and Kilbride delivers the passion needed for such a role. The friendship he strikes up with alcohol dependant Steve (Leslie Longley) grows as the piece progresses. Longley appears initially charming with a typical Scouse sense of humour. His performance throughout is intense and scenes of himself harming are harrowing. With his microphone turned off his raw emotional vocal filled the theatre leaving goosebumps all over.
Striking the right balance of comedy in a theatrical drama based on true life events is certainly difficult but Cain understands the tone of the show perfectly. Claudia Molyneaux as John’s wife provided the devils advocate between supporting her affected husband and raising further questions around the incident. Arguably stealing the show is Sally played by Lynne Fitzgerald. Her performance is simply fantastic with impeccable humorous delivery and her emotional truly pulls on the heartstrings. Fitzgerald had audience members in tears and that is testament to her talent.

Alice McKillop is the only cast member to multi role as Nancy and Charlotte. Whilst the character of Nancy is fully released and clearly natural to the actress, it would be great to see further character development of Charlotte in a future production. Whilst initially appearing underused, Graham Padden as Stuart truly comes into his own in the latter part of the piece. The character is vital for the storytelling and Padden bides his time until his powerful delivery of the characters story is told.
As a footballer lover with no emotional attachment to Liverpool Football Club and too young to remember the disaster first hand, it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by the stories told. Leaving the theatre with tears in your eyes and a lump in your throat is a sign of outstanding emotional delivery. This piece of theatre is perfect for fans of football but would be enjoyed by anyone who has a heart. The standing ovation at the end of the performance was more than deserved and hopefully a glimmer into the potential future life for this production.
Tom Cain has excelled in delivering a piece of theatre which deals with the poignant subject sensitivity, whilst also being truly authentic following extensive research with survivors of the disaster. 97+ is horrific to watch but in the best way possible.

This show was reviewed on the 12th April 2024 at Liverpool Olympia.

Review written by Jordan Potts


Photo credit: David Munn Photography

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