Review: LAUGHING BOY, Jermyn Street Theatre

Connor Sparrowhawk's mother writes an emotional inquiry into the death of her son and the fight that ensued.

By: May. 01, 2024
Review: LAUGHING BOY, Jermyn Street Theatre
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Review: LAUGHING BOY, Jermyn Street Theatre When Connor dies whilst in the care of the NHS, his mum wants answers. A young boy with learning disabilities can’t be failed like this by a system that should be in place to protect him. Her relentless strength uncovers a scandalous number of patients who, like Connor, couldn’t advocate for themselves.

Premiering under Stephen Unwin’s taut direction, Sara Ryan’s Laughing Boy is a bittersweet docu-play about brutal neglect and apathy. While it’s a damning inquiry into the shortcomings of public health, is it a good play or is it an excellent production of a rather mediocre one? In our opinion, it's the second.

When Connor Sparrowhawk passed away in a specialist unit in 2013, the public rallied with his family. His mother, Dr Ryan, the here writer, documented her struggles extensively in her blog and people were all over it. Unwin’s vision is ambitious in its visuals and precise in its aim, but it keeps a lot of surplus material that strings the action along. Ryan's writing is detailed and educational, giving an informed view of everything that happened, but it could be slightly more focused. This said, it’s understandable why this is the path taken by her. She lost her son and is deeply invested in every element of the circumstances.

Review: LAUGHING BOY, Jermyn Street Theatre
Janie Dee, Molly Osborne, Forbes Masson, Alfie Friedman,
Charlie Ives, Daniel Rainford and Lee Braithwaite in Laughing Boy

For this, Laughing Boy probably isn’t meant to be received as the height of dramatic achievement. It’s a beautiful elegiac celebration of Connor Sparrowhawk’s life and what it means to fight for someone you love. Janie Dee is magnificent as a parent in a crisis. Pained with regret, she tries hard not to crumble under the weight of the external accusations that combine with her own guilt. The actor falters in the latter half, as does the otherwise brilliant Forbes Masson as her partner, but this crack in their rehearsedness doesn’t impair the performance. The pair is joined by Alfie Friedman as Connor; an ever-present ghostly shadow, he interjects and interacts with the cast with his own peculiarities and sunny personality.

The perfectly loving family helmed by Dee is completed by an ensemble who delivers a plethora of roles with a flair that adds some lighthearted fun to the piece. Lee Braithwaite stands out with a collection of sleazy health practitioners who gain life with an excellent physical vocabulary. They intersect Dee’s seamless monologue against Simon Higlett’s set, a character in its own right. The concave wall is often awash with projections that streamline the timeline. The designs envelop the scene, obviously indicating changes in the setting, yes, but also becoming interactive tools, testimonies, evidence, artefacts from that harrowing period. It’s a level of digital production value that we’ve never seen at Jermyn Street before.

Review: LAUGHING BOY, Jermyn Street Theatre
Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee in Laughing Boy

The show comes with a hefty emotional load. The author doesn’t spare any details in her explaining the dehumanising treatment her son was subjected to. Ryan reports how labyrinthine bureaucracy is used to weaponise the evident lack of resources, validating and justifying a poor healthcare system. At the same time, she recalls the support they drew from professionals and laypeople fondly. Medical negligence is pushed to the front with an almost clinical run-down of the events that’s quickly soaked with emotion. At times the results are, unfortunately, artificial, clichéd turns of phrases that overburden the delivery.

While a bit of pruning would benefit the dramatic course of the narrative, it’s a play to see if we want to get a first-hand record of how badly our trust can be broken by the powers that be. Ryan’s account might be overly saccharine and Unwin doesn’t do much to reign that side in, but it's ultimately effective and enormously touching.

Laughing Boy runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31 May.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner


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