Growing up with Down's syndrome, a coming-of-age story

Tommy Jessop stands next to a poster of the play

BBC Three documentary Growing Up Down's reveals coming-of-age challenges for three young actors with Down's syndrome.

Actors Tommy, Lawrie and Katy are preparing to create a touring production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. During rehearsals - filmed by Tommy's brother William Jessop - the young actors begin to think about life, love and being disabled.

The documentary shows the kind of conversations which closely match those of younger people without learning difficulties, says Jessop. Rehearsals for the play yield a real-life love triangle, questions about personal and sexual identity and plenty of emotion.

At 29, Tommy Jessop is the oldest and most experienced actor of the trio. His TV credits include appearances in Doctors and Holby City and a lead role in Mark Haddon's TV drama Coming Down the Mountain.

His mum, Jane Jessop, says that when he told them he wanted to act, the family were initially sceptical.

Find out more

Cast of Hamlet
  • A group of young actors with Down's Syndrome set out to create a touring production of Shakespeare's Hamlet
  • Watch Growing up Downs on Monday 3 February at 21:00 on BBC Three or later on iPlayer

"We thought, 'Oh yeah, everyone wants to be on the telly,'" she says, "let's fix him up with some football and some swimming, and then get him a job."

But he surprised them all, and was a big success in school plays. When opportunities to take on mainstream roles ran out for her son, Jane formed Winchester-based company Blue Apple Theatre for people with learning difficulties - the company which is now putting on Hamlet.

William says when his brother started acting he found it hard to "separate the fictional storylines from real life," something that emerges as a common theme for the other actors.

As rehearsals start, 19-year-old Lawrie confuses parts of the Hamlet storyline with life at home and gets upset by the tragic plot. He says: "I know it's only acting but I feel I have a lot in common with Hamlet because people die around him and people die around me."

As rehearsals continue, he wants to change the plot and make the ending of the Shakespeare tragedy a little bit happier. "What I'd like is Claudius always to get away with stuff," he says, "but no, he has to be found out in the end. He has to get killed."

Tommy as Hamlet

Katy also suggests a change to the play. She wants Tommy's Hamlet and her Ophelia to get married, rather than to split up and both die, a sentiment which seems to be linked to Tommy and Katy's real-life romance at the time.

Start Quote

In the past, I have catered to their whims, I've asked them what they want to happen in the play and how they want it to end”

End Quote William Jessop

William, the filmmaker and narrator, is also the creator of the shorter simpler version of Hamlet they work from. He has adapted other Shakespeare plays for Blue Apple. "In the past, I have catered to their whims," he says. "I've asked them what they want to happen in the play and how they want it to end." He explains he does this so they engage with the story.

Lawrie has seen the original play and wants it to remain accurate. He gets his way but later becomes worried that, like his character, he might "go to hell".

Rehearsing Hamlet brings other confusions for the young man. He's had girlfriends in the past, but begins to question his sexuality when feelings for leading man Tommy bubble to the surface. "I've always been in love with Tommy ever since I first met him at the Blue Apple," he says. But the object of his affections caringly explains he doesn't feel for him in the same way.

William hopes the film shows the actors how they really are, not a version of their lives interpreted through parents or others. The actors are not accompanied by family members or friends on screen.

He says the "magic" happens in his film because he has patience: "I ask them questions about the play and that leads to questions about real life. And to be honest, I don't think many people have these conversations with people with Down's syndrome."

(L-R) cast of Hamlet James, Katy, Tommy, Laurie

As part of the preparation for the tour, the actors visit the Normansfield Theatre in Teddington, built by learning disability pioneer Doctor Langdon Down. A collage of children with Down's syndrome is on display in the theatre.

It prompts Lawrie to say it makes him feel "uncomfortable and strange".

"Some of the faces have my face," he says, and, in a poignant moment, it emerges that he doesn't know what Down's syndrome is or whether he has it. His older friend Tommy, who also lives with the syndrome, offers reassurance. "It's just about life the way it is."

Growing Up Down's is on BBC Three at 21:00 on Monday 3 February.

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