A new play about acting with a learning disability starring Hollywood actor Hugh Grant and 25 actors with a learning disability is to premier at Sadler’s Wells this week.
The Drama Group is a play based on the latest book from Baroness Sheila Hollins’ Books Beyond Words series. The book was co-written by her son Nigel Hollins and Grant.
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The play will be performed by The Baked Bean Theatre Company, a collective of actors with learning disabilities, with Grant making a special appearance. The day will also celebrate 25 years of Beyond Words, which produces books, eBooks and other resources for people who find it easier to understand pictures than words, showcasing many of the books that have been created in that time.
The book has taken more than 18 months to complete with dozens of hand-drawn images, multiple 'rewrites', numerous trials and focus groups – including drama experts, people with learning disabilities and their supporters. In tandem with the later stages of production, the members of The Baked Bean Theatre Company have been rehearsing in order to get ready for the biggest show of their lives.
“I often have a moan about acting as a job when I’m doing interviews,” said Grant. “It’s partly because film acting IS a bit slow and dull. And partly because I can’t quite bring myself to spout the usual stuff about how wonderful the experience of making whatever film it was has been, and how much acting heals my spirit etc etc. BUT, I will say this: amateur acting was always a genuine pleasure. I had a real laugh doing plays at school and university. I genuinely loved the performing, the excitement, the bonding, the romances with the girl playing Masha, the cast parties, the bitching, everything.
“That’s one of the reasons I was keen to lend a hand in the making of this book. The other was my admiration for this series of books as a whole. I hadn’t come across them until my friends Sheila and Nigel Hollins introduced me to them and I thought they were genius. The three of us, together with some other friends, sat around and came up with the story. And then the brilliant Lisa Kopper did the drawings. I hope people like the finished thing. I’m very proud of it.”
Baroness Hollins added: “Why a book about acting? Nigel’s experience. A joyful celebration of an activity enjoyed by many people with and without disabilities, and a fitting tribute to our 25 years of work creating books without words which empower people who are not able to read to receive understanding and support in facing many of life’s most important experiences.”
The Baked Bean Theatre Company’s actors are also excited about the prospect of performing the play, as well as working alongside a Hollywood actor.
“I like playing the nurse in The Drama Group play, and it'll be amazing to perform in a big theatre,” said Kay, one of Baked Bean’s actors. “I can't wait to see Hugh Grant in it!”
Another actor, Claudia, added: “It's easy for people to understand [The Drama Group book] because it's not got words. Some people can't read so pictures are simpler. I enjoy it because I like drama.”
The Drama Group premieres on January 13 at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells. Performances are at 4pm and 7pm.