(I have broken a rule. But I love this picture of Anthony, whenever I see it, it makes me smile.)
Some people you just love from the get go. There’s something about how they occupy a place, how they’re alive with promise and fun or naughtiness; how when they smile the whole world smiles with them; how the world is better for having known them. These people have a lightness of being, a warmth or charm that works its magic in your soul whenever you encounter them. Anthony was like that.
I first met him in 1998 in the upstairs room of Romiley Forum, just outside of Stockport, Greater Manchester. He arrived, flinging open the door so that it near flew off its hinges and stormed in. “I’ve arrived,” he said, in case I’d missed his dramatic entrance.
He was an irresistible force of nature and he was there at the very beginning of the theatre company’s inception clearly demonstrating in his funny, perfect, comic-timed way why a theatre company for adults with a learning disability was totally necessary.
Anthony had a way of contributing that was impossible to ignore. He’d perform his way across the room, settle himself in a chair central to the action, then be a presence in the room contributing off the cuff, nonchalant and occasionally pre-planned one-liners. The man who supported him, also in this picture, was loud and funny too and so they teamed up as the most extraordinary double act keeping us all entertained.
We were quite nervous for our first production but Anthony just took it in his stride: he was born to be on the stage. At the end of the performance (after we’d managed to stop him taking the applause) Anthony’s mum came to speak to me about her son’s stage debut.
“I’m not a little bit surprised he’s taken to it like a duck to water,” she said, “He has us in stitches at home.”
(At home was a lovely bedroom in his parents’ house where evening after evening – having enjoyed his tea with his folks – he would settle down for bed with his videos, a hot chocolate and a kit kat chocolate bar.)
“Every night?” I asked a little incredulous.
“Yes. Every night. He likes routine. Apart from when he’s entertaining – and then he just wants to make everyone laugh.”
And it was true. He did. Before the session started Anthony would arrive in Romiley Cafe for his breakfast along with another man, (who lived independently and who refused to speak above a whisper, perhaps not quite as well suited to drama) and their support worker. Both men had Down’s syndrome but beyond that they were different as chalk and cheese.
“He’s quiet,” Anthony would say pointing at Kevin, the other man – who would shyly stare at his feet, “Like a mouse. Squeak. Squeak. BUT he really LOVES toast!”
By the end of the year Kevin had moved onto working in a supermarket instead of treading the boards (he was brilliant at moving trolleys about.)
After the session Anthony would, along with other group members, stay for lunch. The Learning Disabled community marches on its stomach. A lovely lunch was just the ticket after acting all morning.
The company also contained Roger J-P who had an autism spectrum disorder and who would always say in answer to “where are you going?” “To Hyde. For a cup of tea and a cake.” And Mark, who was always ferociously angry because he couldn’t get a job at Man United. And Saz who hated being called Sarah and who could on account of nothing in particular throw herself into a rage of epic proportions. There was Trish, who had an acquired disability from a viral condition that she’d had aged 15 and Barry who really didn’t have a disability at all but did have a special need. He’d lived with his mum and somehow had failed to grow up (I witnessed him crying and throwing a tantrum equivalent to a toddler). He smoked and drank which always seemed oddly incongruous.
The saddest member of our happy troupe was Patrick who at 16 had been a naughty boy, wayward but not so very bad – just a bit angry – and then, 40 years later was let out of the institution he had been sent to (having been forgotten about) so that he didn’t really know quite what to do or who to be in the real world, being squared and shaped by the boundaries of the hospital environment. This was the 90s but still, just then, in towns up and down the country those who had been bad but not bad enough were released into the community to receive a different kind of care and ill-prepared for it. Having been abandoned yet safe, the world seemed to beat Patrick up once he was outside and all because no-one had really understood what was best for them.
The theatre group made a difference to them all.
Especially Anthony though. He was loved. His mum had centered her life on him. She would get very frustrated with people ‘advocating’ for her son. With visible outrage she told how the Dr had said, “And what do you think of that Anthony?” And his mum answered, “You know he’s got a learning disability, don’t you?” As if the doctor was a bit stupid.
I loved Anthony. He always ended up front, adding jokes that had never been mentioned before on show dates and growing actual feet and inches when the laughter and the applause came. And the curtain call, the adulation – we joked that we needed a hook to pull him off. Every week Anthony would also practice his bowing skills, “For the fans,” he’d say, “For the fans!” And I know this intervention had given him the stage that he’d always wanted.
And he acquired a lot of admirers. Everywhere he went Anthony gathered friends. This was evident at his funeral which took place at one of the biggest churches in Stockport, full to the brim: a celebration of this most affable, loveliest of men’s life who had died – totally unexpectedly in his early 40s after having watched his video, drained his hot chocolate and smacked his lips around his favourite chocolate bar, a Kit-Kat.
I had left the Artistic Direction of the company to someone else by then, and I was glad – because it would never have been the same without him.