Play puts life with a learning disability centre stage

Nathan Bessell rehearsing for Up Down Man at the Salisbury Playhouse. Pic: Laura Jane Dale

Nathan Bessell rehearsing for Up Down Man at the Salisbury Playhouse. Pic: Laura Jane Dale

“I always wanted it to be about dance, drama, feelings”, said actor Nathan Bessell recently of the new play he has inspired and collaborated on.

The 31-year-old stars in Up Down Man, at the Salisbury Playhouse until March 12. The play, as I explain in this piece on the Guardian’s social care network today, is about Matty, a young adult with Down’s syndrome. Bessell, who plays Matty, has influenced the script, which also draws on stories from families of people who have a learning disability.

Nathan Bessell and Heather Williams in Up Down Man. Pic: Richard Davenport

Nathan Bessell and Heather Williams in Up Down Man. Pic: Richard Davenport

To explore the issues raised, there will be three discussion forums for professionals in health or social care, theatre managers and families, with the first of these happening this weekend.

The show, by Bristol-based Myrtle Theatre Company, involves dialogue, original music and dance, and is a sequel to the company’s Up Down Boy, which I featured on the blog some time ago. The original play, also starting Bessell and written by his mother, Sue Shields, was performed in 2013 at the National Theatre and toured the country. The sequel, written by Brendan Murray, is not autobiographical, but follows the same character into adulthood and is presented from his perspective.

The two years of research and development involved in the new play currently running at the Salisbury Playhouse Murray involved the views and experiences of families and carers, with the process tailored to enable Bessell, who has limited vocabulary and a hearing impairment, to contribute.

Heather Williams, the artistic director of the Mytrle Theatre Company, has known Bessell since she began working with him when he was 16. Williams

Williams says her fellow actor’s influence has led to a more thoughtful, and gradual method of making theatre. However, as she stresses in today’s piece, the aim is also to produce a high quality piece of entertainment: “I hope people won’t think, ‘I’m going to see an issue-based play’, but come and see a damn good piece of theatre that changes the way they think.”

Nathan Bessell and Vic Llewellyn in rehearsals for Up Down Man. Pic: Laura Jane Dale

Nathan Bessell and Vic Llewellyn in rehearsals for Up Down Man. Pic: Laura Jane Dale

* Full story on the Guardian website

About Saba Salman

Saba Salman is a social affairs journalist and commissioning editor who writes regularly for The Guardian. Saba is a trustee of the charity Sibs, which supports siblings of disabled children and adults, and an RSA fellow. She is a former Evening Standard local government and social affairs correspondent.
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