In a naked rehearsal house close to Southwark tube station, south London, 11 individuals are within the strategy of forming a circle, prepared for a read-through of a new play. On the highest of a close by piano is a small mountain of tea, espresso and biscuits; for 2 or three minutes, every part is drowned out by the wheezing and groaning of a very loud kettle. The temper is upbeat and energetic; everybody right here appears to be fortunately immersed within the unusual magic of turning the script resting on their laps into one thing energetic.

It’s fairly a job. The play in query, Laughing Boy, encompasses each on a regular basis pleasure and essentially the most terrible sort of unhappiness: a few of it’s about life at its most intense, however its defining occasion is a mindless and unimaginably tragic dying. It additionally pulls off the uncommon achievement of being political – at the very least with a small “p” – but additionally filled with human emotion. The preamble to the script speaks volumes: “It’s a horrible story,” it says, “however it should be carried out with optimism, laughter, satire and power.”

Laughing Boy tells the story of Connor Sparrowhawk, the younger man from Oxford who suffered appalling neglect and indifference at an Evaluation and Remedy Unit (or ATU) run by a department of the NHS referred to as Southern Well being, and drowned in a shower, behind a locked door, within the midst of an epileptic seizure. The play additionally contains portrayals of his 4 siblings and stepdad, who introduced him up from the age of three. However the character who ties all the factor collectively is his mom, Sara Ryan, who wrote the guide the play is predicated on (Justice for Laughing Boy, printed in 2017), and whose phrases drive a lot of the story alongside.

Alfie Friedman as Connor and Janie Dee as Sara in rehearsals for Laughing Boy; the script says, ‘It’s a horrible story, however should be carried out with optimism and laughter.’ {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

On the day I go to rehearsals, Sara takes her place among the many solid, calmly providing her ideas, and intently watching Janie Dee – a really skilled actor, with a CV stacked with theatrical roles, in addition to TV appearances in such reveals as Midsomer Murders and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy Crashing – re-enact giant chunks of her life. For each of them, it appears to be a fascinatingly bizarre expertise: “This is the primary time I’ve ever performed somebody actual,” Dee tells me, and it’s clear this fills the function with an additional sense of accountability.

The earlier afternoon, I talked to Sara on Zoom. 5 or 6 years in the past, she mentioned, there was discuss of a primetime TV drama about her household’s story, which obtained so far as lengthy interviews and a half-finished script, however by no means went any additional. Then, out of the blue, she was contacted by the theatre director and playwright Stephen Unwin, and the 2 of them bounced his draft scripts forwards and backwards from round 2020 onwards.

She and the remainder of Connor’s household, she tells me, agreed to be a part of what was being proposed, however on her first go to to satisfy the folks answerable for staging the play, she began to really feel a sharp pang of ambivalence. “I used to be considering: ‘I don’t know what I really feel about this – and I’m undecided in any respect, now it’s taking place.’ However they bowled me over. They so obtained it. The entire level of the marketing campaign we did” – to alter the best way folks with studying disabilities and autism are handled by the state – “was that it wasn’t so a lot about Connor as this structural systemic expertise and the best way individuals are brutalised. They noticed it as a really shifting story that was deeply political, they usually have been dedicated to that.”

She pauses. “It’s not some form of silly, saccharine factor: ‘Look, this mum’s accomplished one thing superb.’ It’s way more difficult.”

“There’s a giant motive why this play is admittedly necessary,” Unwin tells me. “It says: ‘There was this lad, Connor Sparrowhawk, and his household, and he was humorous and he was attractive.’ However when he died, if Southern Well being had mentioned to his household: ‘That is an terrible second, we obtained this utterly fallacious’, none of this could have occurred, and we wouldn’t be right here. A horrible factor occurred due to dreadful requirements of care, after which they have been all guarding their backs and doing” – he grimaces – “status administration.”

“There’s a parallel with the Put up Workplace scandal,” he says. “Or Hillsborough. And don’t neglect: there have been so many instances since this one.”


Connor Sparrowhawk was autistic, and had studying disabilities. This stuff appeared to sit down on the coronary heart of the detached method he was handled by the individuals who have been meant to see to his care, however they got here nowhere close to defining him. Because the play highlights, he was playful, witty and filled with pursuits and obsessions, some of which – buses, David Bowie, and what his mum calls “a very overdeveloped sense of justice” – have been immovable components of who he was. He was nicknamed Laughing Boy, she says, as a result of he had a behavior of falling into very infectious bursts of mirth, and a expertise for amusing different folks, each of that are fantastically portrayed within the play.

In 2011, Sara started describing a few of this in a weblog referred to as My Daft Life, whose archive remains to be on-line. “I used to write it primarily as a result of he simply made me chortle a lot,” she says. “However he confirmed me such a distinct method of seeing life, each day. He used to ask ‘why’ questions rather a lot. And ultimately, I’d suppose: ‘I don’t know.’ I’d must say: ‘Properly, that’s what we all the time do.’ And that isn’t an reply in any respect. He was good at that sort of … scrutiny.”

Sara is an instructional, who specialises in what her official résumé calls “studying disabilities, autism, rising older, [and] loneliness”. Her and Connor’s story – and the play – spotlight a evident vacuum that has but to be stuffed, within the UK or wherever else: we’ve got some techniques and constructions constructed for autistic and learning-disabled youngsters (even when they’re creaking), however not for adults. I have a teenage son who has autism and studying disabilities, and plenty of what Sara tells me sounds very acquainted: deep anxiousness concerning the future; restricted choices; and the need of mixing the alternatives we make with a dogged vigilance, which is usually mistaken for being a pushy mum or dad.

‘No one listened to him as a human being. He was only a individual with a studying incapacity’ … the actual Connor Sparrowhawk, who died in 2013. {Photograph}: courtesy of Sara Ryan

Across the time he turned 18, Connor began to grow to be anxious, unsettled and typically aggressive. “It was out of the blue and it didn’t actually make any sense,” Sara says. “His headteacher, who was beautiful, all the time mentioned she thought it was as a result of his sister was going to school, and his brothers have been starting to speak about what they have been going to do. And he didn’t have a future. There was nothing lined up for him; nothing for him to look ahead to. And when he began to go downhill, it was simply terrible.

“I used to be so nervous: I used to be doing analysis on this space, so I knew that numerous [autistic] folks find yourself in jail,” she says. “I used to be actually nervous he was going to kick off and one thing was going to occur. After which a buddy rang and mentioned, ‘There’s this unit’ … and also you’re completely determined; you don’t suppose about anything.”

After being “clerked in” to the ATU, on his first evening Connor was sectioned, which intensified the sense of enforced distance between him and his household. “With a bit extra space, I’ve regarded again and form of thought: ‘Fucking hell, what have been we doing?’” Sara says. “He wasn’t underneath part after about six weeks, so we may have taken him dwelling. However these gradual wheels have been turning: it was: ‘We have to have a giant assembly with everyone current to speak about what’s going to occur.’”

That assembly was ultimately scheduled for Monday 8 July, however on the Thursday earlier than, the unthinkable occurred. Thanks largely to the campaigning that adopted Connor’s dying, the terrible particulars emerged in the course of the lengthy years afterwards: first in an impartial investigation commissioned by Southern Well being, then at Connor’s inquest in 2015, a medical tribunal two years after that, and within the Well being and Security case in 2018 that resulted in Southern Well being being fined £2m.

When Connor was 15, he had skilled his first epileptic seizure. Within the ATU, it was clear that he had one other, however had solely been given Bonjela, after he had bitten his tongue. On the morning he died, he had been within the tub, behind a locked door. One of many employees who was meant to be taking care of him had been doing an internet grocery store order. The inquest discovered there had been “insufficient communication with Connor’s household and between employees in relation to Connor’s epilepsy wants and danger”. Worse nonetheless, it was claimed by Southern Well being’s legal professionals that there was “no proof” that he had had seizures within the unit, when there fairly clearly was.

There’s one other aspect of the story that’s simply as thoughts boggling, and the best way the play portrays it solely heightens its awfulness: what Sara identifies as “mother-blaming”. At Connor’s inquest, the authorized representatives of Southern Well being employees openly attacked her for allegedly being “persistently obstructive and troublesome”. She subsequently obtained a telephone name from an nameless member of its employees – one thing that was proved by a police investigation – calling her a “vindictive cow”. In 2018, a Crown Courtroom choose mentioned she had “confronted not merely resistance however totally unjustified criticism” as she pursued her marketing campaign for justice.

In direction of the tip of our dialog, she says one thing that will get to the core of Connor’s story: “No one listened to Connor as a human being. He was only a individual with a studying incapacity.” The truth that this was a part of an enormous mess of failure and prejudice was proven by one thing that got here to gentle two and half years after Connor’s dying. Between 2011 and 2015, Southern Well being had solely investigated two out of 327 “surprising” deaths of learning-disabled folks of their care. These are the sort of plain, chilling info that the play will current to its audiences.


Stephen Unwin has a 27-year-old son referred to as Joey, who has studying disabilities. In 2017, he wrote a play referred to as All Our Youngsters, concerning the state-sanctioned homicide of disabled youngsters in Nazi Germany. This new play, he says, is “a very powerful factor I’ve ever accomplished”.

Unwin is an impish, endlessly talkative presence, whose work retains returning to at least one key topic: what the labels given to folks imply for a way society treats them. “Giving folks names and classes is key to denying them their humanity,” he says. “I perceive the worth of a analysis, however you need to begin saying: ‘Autism? Studying disabilities? Let’s begin speaking about what you have to have a great life.’”

Drama, he thinks, can open the house for a public dialog about all that, however it must retain a political mind-set about folks’s tales. “What the humanities are tending to do in the mean time is make it all concerning the particular person, whereas I suppose we have to begin saying: ‘What’s it about our society and our politics meaning these folks aren’t getting the identical alternatives and care and no matter else as their non-disabled brothers and sisters?’”

‘He ended up with a heavy haulage truck together with his identify on’ … Alfie Friedman as Connor Sparrowhawk in rehearsals for Laughing Boy. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

As Unwin notes, the place of 1000’s of individuals with autism and studying disabilities may truly be even worse than that: in addition to Connor’s case, Laughing Boy shines gentle on each a previous and current replete with terrible neglect and abuse. Two years earlier than Connor’s dying, the BBC uncovered a horrific scandal on the privately run Winterbourne View hospital close to Bristol. An extended record of comparable tales have been revealed since then, throughout the UK.

Two days earlier than my go to to rehearsals, I learn an article by the campaigning journalist Ian Birrell that highlights a evident political failure. In 2019, he factors out, an NHS plan backed by the federal government mentioned that by the tip of March 2024, the variety of folks with autism and studying disabilities detained in psychological well being hospitals could be halved, relative to the two,900 held in 2015. The most recent NHS figures, taken in September 2023, present 2,045 detentions. To point out what these detentions typically entail, Birrell tells the story of a 24-year-old man referred to as Eddie Inexperienced, who first entered an ATU when he was 13. Within the years since, his experiences have included being “caught right into a small padded solitary cell with out home windows, pressured to sleep on a plastic mattress, use a bowl for his rest room and handed meals by a hatch to eat on the ground”.

For this reason the script of Laughing Boy accommodates Sara’s indignant insistence: “Folks like Connor are nonetheless left to reside, and typically die, in squalor: uncared for, ignored and worse. And so the battle goes on. It has to.”


As I watch the seven-strong solid rehearse, one of many play’s most exceptional qualities turns into clear time and again, notably within the efficiency of Alfie Friedman, the 21-year-old actor who performs Connor. It is most movingly woven into imagined dialogues together with his mum about what adopted his dying: a sort of serendipitous, bittersweet magic that stored surfacing because the marketing campaign, whose hashtag was #Justice4LB, rolled on.

In January 2016, for instance, a crowd of campaigners led by Connor’s household pitched up at a gathering of Southern Well being’s board, to demand resignations. What they did made it on to the BBC One’s Information at Ten, after an merchandise concerning the dying of one among Connor’s favorite musicians. “So after David Bowie, the subsequent factor you noticed was Connor’s photograph. He additionally ended up with the three buses in Northampton together with his identify on [in tribute],” Sara says. “He all the time wished a heavy haulage firm, and he ended up with a heavy haulage truck together with his identify on.” She laughs. “He even ended up with a bomb-detection truck together with his identify on. And he all the time liked justice. So all his ambitions sort of got here to occur in the middle of the marketing campaign.

“And on this play, all that stuff goes to be visually represented,” she says. “It’s going to be so bizarre.”

On the first evening, she explains, the viewers will embody not simply Connor’s household, however a few of his academics, in addition to individuals who have been centrally concerned in all that campaigning. “The viewers is simply going to be everyone within the guide, just about. It’ll be actually shifting.” However what, I’m wondering, does she need different folks to take from what they see?

Her reply is bracingly simple; it summarises every part we’ve got talked about. “I need folks to depart the theatre and suppose: ‘Bloody hell, that boy mattered. And these folks matter.’”

Laughing Boy is at Jermyn Road theatre, London, from 25 April to 25 Might; and Theatre Royal Tub, 4 to eight June.

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