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Living With Luke author reflects on his plays’ success

Charity / Wed 4th Feb 2015 pm28 08:08pm

By Siobhan Wood

LIVING With Luke, the play based on a father’s blog about his relationship with his autistic son, put on two sold-out performances at Burnt Mill Academy with UK autism ambassador Anna Kennedy in attendance.

The return of the play was made possible by a grant from Harlow Health Centres Trust and help from Harlow Council chairman Ian Beckett, with proceeds from the performances going to his three selected charities and PACT for Autism.

Steve Hannam, who plays Luke’s father under the alias Danson Thunderbolt, started writing the popular Living with Luke blogs to express how he felt about sensing his son drifting away from him.

Steve said: “I’d never blogged before about anything so somebody suggested that I write about Luke, and I did.

“I’ve kept those feelings about his condition hidden for a long time and actually writing it down got out a lot of stuff that I’d forgotten about.”

Luke was played by Ben Maytham, who approached the role by going to Steve’s house and watching Luke’s mannerisms.

Ben said: “I’ve played pantomime dames, I’ve played soldiers: that’s easy stuff, it’s all scripted.

“At the beginning I found a lot of pressure with it because I’m not playing a fictional person; I’m playing a real life boy in front of his dad and his family and his friends so I had to make it real for them.

“Everyone’s different, every person with autism is totally different, so I had to focus on Luke.”

Playwright Paul T Davies added the wrestling element to the play when he learned Steve was a semi-pro wrestler.

Pro wrestler Paul Tyrrell came on board to play The Autistic Shadow, the character preventing Steve from having the relationship he wants with his son.

Paul T Davies said: “The wrestling feels pretty real when you’re sat in the front row!

“I foolishly said they could improvise and there was one time Paul grabbed a chair and started hitting Danson on the head, just to see my face.”

After the performance there was a session for audience members to give their feedback and ask questions of the cast and Anna Kennedy.

Anna said: “This play was amazing.

“It’s better than The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; I’ve been to see that play and I just think that Living with Luke should be shared everywhere across the country because it just says it how it is.”

Anna spoke about the “virtual online community” she had created on social media for people affected by autism and encouraged people to interact with her via her website and Twitter page.

She also answered questions about how the support available now to parents of autistic children differed to when Luke was diagnosed.

Anna said: “Support is very ‘postcode lottery’.

“At the moment it’s very much a wait and see attitude; our children don’t have time because everything that you read about autism is that early intervention is crucial for children like ours.

“It’s almost like ‘oh, they’re cured’ when they get to 18 or 19 but they’re not, they’re still autistic, which is a developmental condition.

“There isn’t a pocket for them either: they don’t fit in learning disabilities and they don’t fit in mental health.

“We’ve still got a long way to go.

“Our kids are not second class citizens and they’re entitled to have quality of life just like everybody else.”

Anna, who is an avid fundraiser and campaigner, highlighted the importance of thinking out of the box to raise awareness of autism, announcing that she had been chosen to be a contestant on The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief, starting 23rd February.

Anna said: “Every time they’re filming me I’m trying to get a sentence in about autism!”

Writer Paul T Davies also spoke about the “pages and pages” of positive feedback they had received from fathers of autistic children and how important it was to everyone involved in the play that they were raising awareness.

Paul said: “It’s a male point of view and men tend not to talk about things like this.

“That’s why we’re doing this and we want to do more and reach more people.

“Although obviously the play is about struggle I also think it’s about love and hopefully that comes across as well, the love between father and son.

“I had three aims: to raise awareness of autism, to bring people who have never been to the theatre before to the theatre and I wanted theatre-goers to experience wrestling.

“We achieved all three of those aims on the very first show which is wonderful.”

Living with Luke relies on donations and every performance they are doing is a result of people seeing the first four shows and inviting them to put on the play at their venue.

Paul T Davies said: “If you want to give a small financial support we do have a Crowdfunder fundraising page.

“We’re aiming to raise £1,500 which will allow us to play at the Lights Up! festival in Colchester.

“We’re doing the Rhodes Centre in Bishop’s Stortford on the 19th and 20th March.

“We would like to do festivals and schools and take it back to Mercury Theatre, which is where we began.

“Our last gig is in Clacton on May 9th but none of us want it to end there.”

The cast agreed that word of mouth recommendations and audience members sharing their thoughts about the play on social media can help them raise awareness and funds.

Steve said: “If you enjoyed the play, just tell everybody.”

Cllr Beckett urged any local authorities who knew of an appropriate venue that could accommodate a full-scale wrestling ring for the duration of the performances to get in touch.

Cllr Beckett said: “I wanted the people of Harlow to have an opportunity to see this fantastic piece of theatre.

“I wanted to raise awareness of autism and to promote this fantastic company and the reaction tonight without exception from everyone in the audience has been fantastic and assured me that I’ve done the right thing.

“As Anna said, this should be seen in every town and every city throughout the country because it’s moving you and it’s also changing attitudes.

“Hopefully with that change of attitude we’ll then be able to change the hearts and minds of our decision makers to make sure that autism gets the same support as many other conditions that affect people’s lives.”

To book your tickets for the show at Rhodes Theatre Bishop’s Stortford on 19th and 20th May or to request a resource pack please visit: www.rhodesbishopsstortford.org.uk/events/living-with-luke/

To make a donation to the Living with Luke fundraising page please visit: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/living-with-luke-the-play

Visit the Living with Luke play Facebook page: www.facebook.com/livingwithluketheplay

Read the blogs at: www.dansonthunderbolt.wordpress.com

Visit Anna Kennedy’s website: www.annakennedyonline.com

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