A play performed by a professional cast of learning disabled and autistic actors is to open at one of London’s leading theatres this weekend in a significant landmark for the arts sector.
Imposter 22, a darkly comic whodunnit, will run for three weeks on the main stage of the Royal Court in Sloane Square. The play, by Molly Davies, has been five years in the making.
Seven out of the eight-strong cast are learning disabled and autistic actors who trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. They helped create the play with Davies, feeding in their experiences over a series of workshops.
Charlene Salter, one of the cast, said: “You don’t really see learning disabled and autistic people as role models on the stage and television. It is changing, but it needs to improve. There’s so much talent out there.”
The idea for the production originated with Hamish Pirie, a neurodivergent associate director at the Royal Court, who directs the play. The theatre has worked closely with Access All Areas, a theatre company for learning disabled and autistic people.
Davies, an award-winning playwright, said the workshops with the cast were a source of “constant ideas that fed the play. It made it very easy for me to write because I had everyone’s voices in my head. The process was joyful.”
She added: “There’s not a great deal of cultural representation of learning disabled people – but first and foremost I hope audiences enjoy the story and are entertained. And I hope they see that the experiences portrayed are both specific and universal.”
In one scene, a character visiting a jobcentre is met with incomprehensible officialese – an experience that has specific challenges for someone with a learning disability but also one that most people in the audience will recognise and identify with, Davies said.
The play has been in rehearsal for several weeks ahead of its opening on Saturday. “I’m thrilled with what I’ve seen. Every time a step up is required, the cast is there and ready. There’s no back-footedness. I have a real sense that this is the edge of something.”
According to Nick Llewellyn, artistic director of Access All Areas, “learning disabled and autistic performers have not been represented on stage at this scale previously”.
There had been a “huge drive in theatre and more recently television to centre disabled talent and to challenge ways of making theatre”, he said.
“But there’s still a long way to go. One of the biggest issues is training opportunities, and another is ensuring constant professional development. We’re looking to the industry to create more opportunities.
“Our stages really need to represent the UK, and historically they haven’t done so.”
Kirsty Adams, who takes the part of Blossom – who she describes as “cheeky and a little bit bossy” – in the play, said the production was an opportunity to “show what we can do, and how well we can do it”.
Salter said people with learning disabilities and autism were “put in boxes and categories”. The show would, she hoped, “trigger a lightbulb, with [the audience] seeing they’re like us”.
Although she has appeared in television dramas, it was her first experience of the stage. “I feel nervous, but also excited and empowered. I hope it leads to more jobs and more roles in the arts industry.”