I’ll be honest, Downs Syndrome isn’t something that I’ve spent much of my life thinking about. Can people with Downs Syndrome have children? Do they have sex? Do they even desire the same things from life as everybody else? You might find my questions offensive, but I’m just being honest. Luckily, honesty is paramount in Joy, the heart-warming new Clamour Theatre production which literally puts people with Downs Syndrome front and centre.
Protagonist Joy (Imogen Roberts, recently seen in the film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending) lives with her potty-mouthed, lioness of an older sister Mary (Rachael Bright, formerly Poppy Meadow in EastEnders) and their single dad, John. Joy befriends librarian Sue, who has a husband and grown son of her own. Her new friendship leads Joy to read a Victorian-set novel about Mabel, who also has Downs Syndrome. This second narrative in Joy’s imagination plays out in separate scenes, which become increasingly intertwined with the rest of the action as the play unfolds.
Of this unlikely new friendship with Sue, Joy’s father reminds her to always “try and spot what people want from you”, a sentiment which sits sadly at odds with his daughter’s innocence and also strikes a sense of foreboding in the scenes that follow. This is a clever device because it leads the audience to be suspicious of Sue, even though she appears harmless: a lesson that all of us have to learn as we grow up, but especially those whose appearance betrays their vulnerability.
If this all sounds a bit miserable, there’s plenty of comedy too, thanks largely to the language and phrases which honk from Mary’s filthy gob throughout, cutting through a mood which could otherwise wobble off into a twee, Richard Curtis-style oblivion as the story reaches its end. Rachael Bright shines in this role, snarling at the “pathetic, water-weak smiles” that most people give her little sister when they don’t know what to say.
I’ll admit that I didn’t know what to say to people with Downs Syndrome either, or how to act, or what to think. The power of Joy lies in having two actors living with Downs Syndrome portraying their everyday reality, to an audience who are free to watch with curiosity and openly consider the issues being presented to them. If you’re as curious as me, or just need a reminder of the importance of love and honesty.
Find out more about Joy at Theatre Royal Stratford East‘s website