Laughing Boy is an emotional and warmingly funny play that is a tribute to Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned in an NHS unit in 2013 aged 18. Sarah Ryan, Connor's mother, has campaigned for Connor's justice ever since with the help of social media and her memoir Justice for Laughing Boy, which this play has been adapted from by writer-director Stephen Unwin. 


Connor was autistic and epileptic and died from the neglect of care he received when he was in an NHS unit. But Connor was not just his diagnosis or a number, he was funny and curious and above all, loved his family. He loved buses, coaches, and lorries as well, which we see throughout the play with him holding a big red London bus. He loved London too.


The play shows us informatively the events that took place: Connor's turbulent teenage years, his growing up, and his journey through Slade House, where he died. Through countless battles for justice, a report eventually concluded that his death was preventable. 


Janie Dee plays Sara and excellently portrays the devoted, humorous, and exhausted mother of Connor. We travel with her on the justice journey for Connor, and every second of the play she is in our eye-sight, drawing us in so that we feel every emotion she feels all tangled together in this heartfelt memoir. Having Laughing Boy played in such an intimate space, a theatre that holds 70 people, is all the more powerful.


Connor, played by Alfie Friedman, is also on the stage the entire time apart from towards the end. This allows us to understand and see how Connor behaved and his connections with his family as we travel through the time before and after his death. Connor's little comments and swearing add to the laughter and tragedy of the events. His 1-on-1 conversations with Dee are at the pinnacle of the play, showing Sara and Connor's loving mother-and-son relationship; Connor repeats ‘why mum' throughout the play, framing this question for his justice. Why did this happen to Connor? Why is he dead? Why is nothing being done?


The siblings in Laughing Boy, played by Charlie Ives (will), Lee Braithwaite (Owen), Molly Osborne (Rosie), and Daniel Rainford (Tom) effortlessly play many other characters too such as doctors, friends, solicitors, and nurses. Above all, they all brilliantly portray the loving bubbly brothers and sisters of Connor.  


The set and staging, designed by Simon Higlett (designer) and Matt Powell (video designer) are simplistic with just a few wooden chairs and a projector screen behind for videos of Connor, blurry street scenes, texts, and documents and reports, to aid our understanding of the events that took place. As well as this, the screen also adds to the emotions of the actors and audience by showing the real Connor and other people with learning disabilities who died at the hands of the NHS. 


The actors also transition into scenes with the clever use of darkness and music; they constantly change positions on stage with the unchronological order of events. But Stephen Urwin has adapted this play in line with Sara's Justice for Laughing Boy so that the events shown are told how they should and in a way that allows us to see before and after Connor's death in an emotional entanglement.


While Laughing Boy will leave you angry and upset at the treatment of Connor and many others, and most certainly with tears in your eyes, you will also find yourself crying with laughter and smiling at the loveable humorous character Connor was. I nudge everyone to go see this play before the end of May. However, if you are unable to, you can find a quilt, each square made by people who were touched by the campaign, in St James' Church, just down the road from Jermyn Street Theatre. 


Laughing Boy is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st May, before playing at Theatre Royal Bath from 4-8th June. 


Review: Cara Scott    Photo: Alex Brenner