Laughing Boy review – Connor Sparrowhawk’s story told with love and fury | Theatre

Iin a church down the road from this theater you can see a quilt, a loving tribute to Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned in a bath in an NHS ward in 2013 18 years old. Each square was made by someone moved by Connor’s death and his mother’s campaign to reveal what happened.

Sarah Ryan’s memoir Justice for the Laughing Boy is adapted by writer-director Stephen Unwin. The show itself is something of a mosaic – hearty, colorful, small – pieced together by the zeal of the campaign.

Connor was autistic and had a learning disability, and many charged with his care never saw beyond his diagnosis. On stage almost all the time, Alfie Freedman gives it a rockstar edge, a sly eyebrow and a radiating sense of curiosity. He often rocks a big red London bus – Connor loved buses, not to mention buses, trucks and laughter.

Alfie Friedman (Connor Sparrowhawk) and Janie Dee (Sarah Ryan) in Laughing Boy. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The condescension the pundits show Connor extends to his family—Ryan usually addresses him as “mom”—and quick, short scenes detail the ways he’s been failed. Faced with Connor’s turbulence as a teenager, the family hope a dedicated facility near their Oxford home will help. Instead, he died in Slade House (now closed) and a report concluded that his death could have been prevented.

On a curved white wall behind the small stage, video designer Matt Powell throws blurred street scenes, texts and messages, documents and buzzwords and incriminating phrases from the reports that finally validated the fight for justice.

In Unwin’s unadorned production, the four actors who play Connor’s friendly siblings also embody the medics and bureaucrats who fumble in his care and then reject responsibility. In a way, a smart choice – casting youngsters as figures who lack empathic maturity – the artificial fruit accents and pomposity are jokey but rarely funny and can’t match the level of Janie Dee’s fury as Sarah.

Dee – paired with the crushed Forbes Masson as her partner – has a voice hoarse with anguish, eyes sore with loss. Sarah is directed to the defense Southern Health Trust. “When the shit hits the fan,” she says wearily, “they blame the mother.” If indifference can kill, the play insists on recognizing and asserting individuality, bright and loud as a Routemaster bus.

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