Theatre Review: Laughing Boy

Theatre Royal Bath, until 8 June
Words by Melissa Blease

In 2013, Sara Ryan’s learning-disabled son Connor Sparrowhawk (affectionally known as Laughing Boy, or LB) drowned in the bath in Slade House, a residential NHS Assessment and Treatment Unit in Oxford, aged just 18. In 2014, Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust published a report confirming that Connor’s death “could have been prevented”.

Ryan outlined the story of Connor’s early life and the unfolding #JusticeforLB campaign in her 2017 book Justice for Laughing Boy: Connor Sparrowhawk – A Death by Indifference.

In 2020, having followed and supported the #JusticeforLB campaign since Connor’s untimely passing, writer, theatre director and campaigner for the rights and dignities of learning-disabled people Stephen Unwin worked with Ryan to adapt her book for the stage.

Forbes Masson as Rich, Charlie Ives as Will, Alfie Friedman as Connor, Daniel Rainford as Tom and Janie Dee as Sara

Laughing Boy – which premiered at London’s Jermyn Street theatre in April of this year – takes audiences on a harrowing voyage into the depths of that hell, with Ryan, her family and Connor himself acting as guides to protect, uplift and inspire us throughout the whole, traumatic journey, which is as much of a celebration of Connor’s short life as it is a call to arms.  

Alfie Friedman’s charismatic, funny, inquisitive but clearly vulnerable Connor subtly dominates designer Simon Higlett’s unadorned set (a row of chairs against a concave cyclorama, occasionally dominated by captivating projections) supported by the tower of indomitable humane strength, compassion and rage that is Janie Dee’s Sara Ryan. Connor’s close-knit family – father Rich (Forbes Masson), brothers Owen (Lee Braithwaite), Will, (Charlie Ives) and Tom (Daniel Rainford) and sister (Molly Osborne) play supporting roles in the true sense of the word away from a mere cast list: their strong bonds with both Connor and each other are unbreakable; their enduring love, support and resilience never wavers.

Forbes, Braithwaite, Ives, Rainford and Osborne multi-task too, doubling-up in countless roles including the social workers, headteachers, lawyers, nurses and support staff who each had their own, sorry role to play in Connor’s tragic tale, the fast-moving scenes interspersed with his mum’s memories of her son, who – in the most heart-breaking moments of the whole drama – asks for updates on his family’s campaign for his justice from beyond the grave, which at one point includes the plaintive enquiry “am I dead, mum?” When Connor/Friedman get hold of your heartstrings, they never once loosen their grip.

Lee Braithwaite as Owen, Molly Osborne as Rosie, Alfie Friedman as Connor, Daniel Rainford as Tom and Janie Dee as Sara

Lack of social care funding; gas-lighting, condescending, victim-blaming bureaucrats; lackadaisical practises around the protection of vulnerable people: the list of grievances against the wrongdoings inflicted on one young man is outrageous, shocking and sickening to say the least, but it’s an all-too-bleak roll-call of all-too-familiar outrages that multiple individuals and families face (and have faced) on an all-too-regular basis – given the ongoing crisis in social care and portents of austerity-programme doom on the near horizon, it’s nauseatingly timely.

But Laughing Boy is not ‘merely’ a captivating piece of Political Protest Theatre that fleetingly enthrals, enrages and exhausts audiences for one night only. Just as Gwyneth Hughes’ 2024 ITV drama series Mr Bates vs The Post Office resulted in public outrage at the scandal and urgent (and ongoing) political involvement and ongoing influence, Stephen Unwin’s bold move to give Sara Ryan’s #JusticeforLB campaign an even stronger foothold on the public’s consciousness has the potential to change – and save – lives.

Lee Braithwaite as Owen, Forbes Masson as Rich, Janie Dee as Sara, Molly Osborne as Rosie and Daniel Rainford as Tom

Photo Credit: Alex Brenner
For tickets and more information click here.