Witnessing solidarity, the power of Laughing Boy

What a month.

In April I attempted something I’d not done before, reporting on two inquests simultaneously, the inquests of Fern Foster and Marcus Hanlin (you can click on their names to read all my coverage).

Fern was a young mother, 22, who ended her life when learning the news that Buckinghamshire Council were moving to have her six month old baby adopted. The coroner found Fern’s death was suicide, contributed to by two factors, a lack of independent advocacy, and the manner in which she learned the news her baby was likely to be adopted, without any professional support. Fern was autistic.

Marcus was 57 when he died. He lived in a nursing home run by Brandon Trust in Bedminster, Bristol. He was left unsupervised, in front of a ‘sensory activity’ that required people to dig around in brightly coloured dyed rice to find conkers. Marcus’s care plans said he should always be supervised around food, but he wasn’t and while alone he swallowed two conkers and consumed some of the uncooked rice. This led to him developing aspiration pneumonia, that despite treatment caused his death. The coroner found his death was an accident contributed to by neglect. Marcus did not use words to communicate, had Downs Syndrome, OCD, autism and in his later years Alzheimers.

Fern’s inquest concluded on Thursday 18 April. Marcus’s inquest concluded on Monday 22 April. I don’t think I’ll report two inquests simultaneously again. It meant I wasn’t able to provide full coverage of either, and it also doubled the travel, the work, the late nights writing up the day’s evidence, the emotional effort and the physical impact (my fingers have taken to swelling up after long days in court taking notes and then equally long evenings trying to report it all).

I ask myself regularly why I report from inquests. I have little confidence of the reach of my efforts, especially since Twitter rebranded; I have perennial concerns about sharing the intricacies of people’s lives and deaths; I am never entirely sure what the point is. I ruminate on this a lot.

Where I nearly always circle back to is that there is power in bearing witness. There’s a solidarity to it. It is all too easy for people to turn away from difficult (conversations/situations/deaths).

Usually I set some time aside after an inquest to decompress, to try to let all the feelings/details/sensory overload leave me, to catch up on sleep and try to make sense of things, to try to bring it all down to a simmer from a boil. Three days after Marcus’s inquest concluded, I travelled to London to meet up with Sara and her crew for the opening of Laughing Boy at Jermyn Street Theatre.

I did not anticipate the tonic that followed, and continued over the weeks since as a steady stream of people descended on this homely, basement theatre where Connor’s story would be brought to life. Sara has written about the play, in the run up and during its run at Jermyn Street, I don’t want to repeat what she’s said, and initially I didn’t want to say anything, in part for fear of sharing spoilers and in part because I didn’t have the right words. I’m still not sure I do.

Yet here we are.

Laughing Boy has 10 days left at Jermyn Street in London and then is heading to the Theatre Royal in Bath for 4 days from Tuesday 4 to Saturday 8 June. I want to implore anyone who can, to go and see it. If I wait until its finished, then this will be a meaningless plea.

The week before last I returned to London to see the play again, to catch up with Sara and to finally, after a decade, meet Ulla (one of Sara’s former colleagues who I’ve never met before). We went for a meal, headed along to St James Piccadilly to see the Justice Quilt, before heading to the Q&A before that night’s performance.

The first time I watched the play I felt in a sort of state of low level anxiety throughout. Sat with Sara and her family members, I found myself scanning to check in on them every so often. I still can not wrap my head around how desperately conflicting it must feel to have the worst moments of your family’s history played on stage, or to have people play you and your much loved, and much missed family member. Once the tears started, it was almost impossible to stop them.

The second time I watched the play I cried less, but still found my cheeks streaked with tear stains by the end. On this occasion the awesome Michael Buchanan and Sophie Woodcock (his producer in the days of JusticeforLB) were in the audience. They were sat at an angle to us and every now and again I found myself drawn to watching them, watching it.

Truth be told I wish we’d moved to London for the whole run of the play. I reckon I could have watched every performance, watching the audience reactions as much as the brilliant cast and production, without getting bored.

JusticeforLB was (is?) remarkable. It was a spontaneous, seat of our pants, magical collaboration and collective force for justice. We had no experience as campaigners, no real understanding of what needed to happen, just a shared belief that Connor mattered, as so many others matter. When we marked the 107 days Connor had been detained in the unit in the campaign, we only had two rules: actions had to raise awareness or funds, and they had to be positive. That was it and what followed was more than we could have hoped for, a pure explosion of solidarity and support. A collective outrage and outpouring, and an infectious sense of togetherness and purpose. That groundswell of support became the fuel for so much that followed in pursuit of justice.

Here we are 10 years later, and the play captures that magic. The cast seem to feed off the audience’s energy and emotions. They are all brilliant. There has been much well deserved talk/writing/reviews of the poignancy of Janie Dee’s Sara and Alfie Friedman’s Connor and the chemistry between them. The other cast members are, in my eyes, equally exceptional. Charlie Ives, Daniel Rainford, Forbes Masson, Lee Braithwaite and Molly Osborne are the scaffolding and the foundations for the performance, switching in and out of numerous roles, bringing the campaign for justice to life, as well as capturing the love and affection at the heart of Connor’s family in playing Will, Tom, Rich, Owen and Rosie respectively.

I really know nothing of theatre, I am at a nursery school level of appreciation, but what I do know is that you can’t produce something as brilliant as Laughing Boy, without a team of people behind the scenes. The play’s Director is Stephen Unwin, and he is ably supported by two super friendly directors with a real attention to detail and commitment (I know this because Ash was taking notes when we were supping pints after the first night), Ashen Gupta (Associate Director) and Sam Chown Ahern (Assistant Director).

Another of the highlights of the play, are the glimpses into the artefacts of the JusticeforLB campaign. Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Simon Higlett’s set design are an embodiment of Sara’s mantra, less is more. The combination of Matt Powell’s video projections and Holly Khan’s sound design had such a visceral impact on me, sending flashbacks and shivers up my spine.

I’m gushing, and I know I don’t really know the half of it, but I found it brilliant and had to try and find some words for it.

The play obviously does not, and could not, capture all the detail, nuance and efforts of the JusticeforLB campaign, but it is a powerful, assaulting, funny and infuriating reminder of what was so special about Connor and why JusticeforLB was so needed, for him and for all the dudes.

In the months of preparation and rehearsal we did something we’ve not really done in the last ten years, we spent time looking through photos and revisiting and remembering so many of the actions that we took, uncovering things long since forgotten. JusticeforLB was without doubt the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in.

It has been joyous to see it brought to life by Unwin and his team, and to see it so carefully supported by the brilliant Jermyn Street Theatre family. The play has acted as a magnet, with many people who were active in JusticeforLB drawn to witness it. There are of course many who have been unable to travel to see it, some who are no longer with us, and many more who are trying so hard to stay afloat in the sea of indifference and non-care and support for their own needs or those of their loved ones, that they have been unable to see it.

I hope in sharing this post I have captured a tiny bit of the magic of Laughing Boy, of its importance and power. If you can go and see it please do. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Take tissues.

[I’ll write a follow up post about why Laughing Boy is about much more than Connor and the pursuit for justice following his death, when I have a chance. So much more to say, so little time].

2 comments on “Witnessing solidarity, the power of Laughing Boy”

LizPiercy says:

I am really concerned to hear about the physical effects of your inquest reporting. I know from my own experience that once you push your hands and wrists too far it can take a very long time to get even a partial recovery. This could affect your work and life and stop you doing other work, hobbies and day to day activities.
The effects mentally on you working alone are also concerning and I’m glad you had that time at Laughing Boy meeting up with people with the same passion. I wish I could have seen it too and also seen the audience reaction.
Take care. Liz

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