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Laughing Boy By Stephen Unwin at Jermyn Street Theatre

Connor loves buses, Eddie Stobart and Lego. He also has learning disabilities and when he dies an entirely preventable death in Southern Health Trust’s care, all Sara, his mother, gets is the “brush off”, not even an apology such as “sorry we got it wrong“. She then spends years trying to get justice for Connor and others like him by writing a daily blog and eventually a book “Justice for Laughing Boy” which leads to the closure of Slade House, where Connor died alone, and Southern Health being fined £2 million. But should a mother, or any of us, have to fight “the establishment”, whose instinctive reaction is to close ranks, in order to get answers, let alone an apology?

Jermyn Street Theatre, Laughing Boy. (c) Alex Brenner.
Jermyn Street Theatre, Laughing Boy. (c) Alex Brenner.

If this seems the recipe for a powerful play, it is, certainly as told and directed by Stephen Unwin, who says “It’s a terrible story, but must be performed with optimism, laughter, satire and energy.

Janie Dee is Sara – stoic, loving, funny, tragic, exhausted, always putting Connor first before and after his death. Like the rest of the cast she is onstage for every second of this 100-minute play and has that uncanny knack of drawing us, the audience, in so that we almost feel we laugh and suffer with her. This is acting at its very finest: Dee is never too emotional but treads that fine line of being British and rarely ever showing her true feelings. When she does it is all the more effective.

Alfie Friedman gives a hilarious yet moving portrayal of Connor. One quickly sees why the play is called Laughing Boy, and Unwin has so structured it that Connor appears throughout, as if in Sara’s imagination, commenting on what is going on. Forbes Masson is Rich, Alfie’s stepfather, another understated performance, almost casual, but because of that revealing his undoubted love and support for the family.

The other members of the family, Connor’s siblings, have challenging tasks as they play every other character in the story: doctors, solicitors, nurses, coroner etc. All of them, Charlie Ives as Will, Lee Braithwaite as Owen, Molly Osborne as Rosie and Daniel Rainford as Tom, achieve this very successfully, as well as cementing the ensemble nature of the whole production. There are no “stars” in this telling of an appalling tale.

Simon Higlett and Matt Powell have designed a white semi-circular set with no furniture onto which are projected essential aids to the audience’s understanding, helped by Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Holly Khan’s subtle sound design.

There’s a parallel to be drawn here with the current yet drawn-out Infected Blood scandal and the Post Office Horizon inquiry which is not lost upon the audience.

As I said above Laughing Boy is a very powerful play that deserves to be seen as widely as possible. It is beautifully written, subtly directed and wonderfully acted – it left me emotionally drained yet wondering if I really lived in the twenty-first century in one of the economically richest countries in the world. The tragic thing is that the sort of events dealt with in this true story are still happening all over the UK.

Very strongly recommended.

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

CREATIVE TEAM
Stephen Unwin – DIRECTOR
Sara Ryan – WRITER
Simon Higlett – DESIGNER
Ben Ormerod – LIGHTING DESIGNER
Matt Powell – VIDEO DESIGNER
Holly Khan – SOUND DESIGNER
Daisy Francis-Bryden – STAGE MANAGER
Grace Hancock – TECHNICAL ASM
Ashen Gupta – ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
Rachael Griffin – COSTUME SUPERVISOR
Sam Chown-Ahern – ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
Anna Wood – ASSOCIATE SOUND DESIGNER
Douglas Baker – ASSISTANT VIDEO DESIGNER
Ginny Schiller – CASTING DIRECTOR

WORLD PREMIERE
A CO-PRODUCTION WITH THEATRE ROYAL BATH.
Laughing Boy
BY STEPHEN UNWIN.
AFTER JUSTICE FOR LAUGHING BOY BY SARA RYAN.
DIRECTED BY STEPHEN UNWIN.

25 APRIL – 31 MAY 2024
https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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