Laughing Boy

Stephen Unwin after Justice for Laughing Boy by Sara Ryan
Jermyn Street Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

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Janie Dee as Sara Ryan, Molly Osborne as Rosie, Forbes Masson as Rich, Alfie Friedmanas Connor Sparrowhawk, Charlie Ives as Will, Daniel Rainford as Tom and Lee Braithwaite as Owen Credit: Alex Brenner
Alfie Friedman as Connor Sparrowhawk, Janie Dee as Sara Ryan and Forbes Mason s Rich Credit: Alex Brenner
Molly Osborne as Rosie, Lee Braithwaite as Owen, Daniel Rainford as Tom, Janie Dee as Sara Ryan, Forbes Masson as Rich and Charlie Ives as Will Credit: Alex Brenner
Daniel Rainford as Tom, Lee Braithwaite as Owen, Alfie Friedman as Connor Sparrowhawk and Janie Dee as Sara Ryan Credit: Alex Brenner

Connor Sparrowhawk was an autistic young man with learning difficulties and epilepsy who died while in the care of a Southern Health Assessment and Treatment Unit when he was left without being checked on in the bath in a locked room. Laughing Boy is what his family called him, for as a boy obsessed with trains, lorries and London buses, he was always laughing, but at 18, he began to have some violent episodes. That was when he was placed in Slade House, with the expectation of proper assessment and treatment.

Laughing Boy isn’t just his story until then. It is the story of his mother Sara Ryan’s fight for answers and justice, closely based on her book and told in direct address to the audience by those playing Sara and her family. More didactic documentary than conventional drama, it is still driven by feeling, and there is plenty of conflict as Oxford academic Sara tries to get the truth told.

Janie Dee as Sara is central, her performance sharing her shock and her grief but also her persistence and joyful memories. There is a physically manifest bond between her and Connor, played by Alfie Friedman (himself autistic), who is always present, even after his death. In the book, she imagines conversations she still has with him and Unwin includes them.

Forbes Masson is a constant support as husband Rich, and Lee Braithwaite, Charlie Ives, Molly Osborne and Daniel Rainford create a picture of a happy, loving family as his siblings while also doubling as medics, social workers and lawyers. They play them in a bevy of different accents as the family would see them, slightly caricatured, which would be funny if the subject were not so serious.

Playing for 100 minutes with no interval, it sags a little from the overload of information as it nears its end, but, as director, Unwin (who also has a son with learning difficulties and epilepsy) handles a cast, all on stage throughout, adroitly. With multiple voices interacting, you are always aware whom the character is that is speaking. The stage picture is fluidly changing, with Simon Higlett’s simple set of a curved white wall displaying Matt Powell’s projections which range from soft-focus scene-setters and family snapshots to blog pages and the quilt created by supporters of Sara Ryan’s campaigning (which is currently on display at St James Church just down the road).

Though Connor the Laughing Boy is always there and it is justice for him that Sara Ryan’s campaign is about, this is equally the story of that campaign, and it is a story that is sadly not over. We need to be vigilant about our public services—and not just the NHS.

Laughing Boy will have a short run at Theatre Royal Bath 4–8 June 2024

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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