One is a world-famous Hollywood actor; the other a man with a learning disability. They met by chance and formed a warm, supportive friendship. The film star even turned up unannounced at his friend’s 40th birthday party in a village hall and arranged for him to fly to New York to appear as an extra in one of his movies. And now the two of them are set to act together on a London stage.
It could be the storyline from a Hugh Grant movie: but it’s the actor’s real life. On 13 January, Grant will appear onstage at the Sadler’s Wells studio theatre alongside his friend Nigel Hollins and other members of the Baked Bean Theatre Company for actors with learning disabilities. The play tells a story loosely based on Hollins’s own, about a young man who isn’t sure whether he has the confidence to get into acting, but who eventually plucks up the courage to take a part.
Grant plays the friendly enabler who tells the boy that you have to take a few risks in life and reassures him that no actor should ever be afraid of making a fool of himself.
The friendship between Grant and Hollins came about after the actor contacted the Hollins family when he was making a TV documentary about press intrusion in 2012. Hollins’s sister is Abigail Witchalls, who was the victim of a terrible knife attack that left her paralysed in 2005. Her family suffered from unwanted press attention in the years following. The mother of Abigail and Nigel – she also has two other children – is Baroness Sheila Hollins, emeritus professor of psychiatry of disability at St George’s Hospital in London. She and Grant struck up a friendship, Grant met her family, and discovered a natural affinity with Hollins, who has been a member of the Baked Bean company for 12 years.
“Right from the start they just seemed comfortable with one another,” says Lady Hollins. “Nigel isn’t star struck in the way a lot of people are with Hugh, which allows him to have a much more ordinary time and I think he likes that.”
Grant says he’s always felt relaxed around people with learning difficulties. “My mother’s best friend had a daughter with a learning disability and she was my exact contemporary, so we were always friends and still are great friends – I often go to visit her,” he says. “I find being around people like her, and Nigel, really very lovely – they’re all so incredibly nice, and kind, and friendly, and it just reaffirms your faith in humanity. I always leave feeling uplifted. Nigel is a great guy: he’s got a brilliant sense of humour and he’s just great fun to be around.
“When he was 40 I went along to his birthday party and had a terrific time, and last year he came out to New York where I got him a part as an extra in a movie we were shooting, The Rewrite, which I think he enjoyed.”
Grant is also a leading supporter of a home for adults with learning disabilities, Fynvola House in Kent. It is named after the Four Weddings and a Funeral star’s mother and he is a regular visitor.
Taking part in the play with Hollins came about after Lady Hollins, who heads Books Beyond Words, which publishes picture books for people with learning disabilities, asked Grant if he and Nigel would co-author a book on acting.
“All our books involve input from people with a learning disability, and Hugh and Nigel were a great team,” she says. “I set up Books Beyond Words because when I was bringing Nigel up I realised that the communication tools available for people with learning disabilities fell far short of what’s needed for them to lead a fulfilled and safe life. The information simply wasn’t being put across in an accessible way and I realised it could only be done using pictures, which could then prompt their readers to properly engage with, and understand, the messages.”
The Baked bean Theatre Company in rehearsal for The Drama Group. Facebook Twitter Pinterest expand
The Baked bean Theatre Company in rehearsal for The Drama Group. Photograph: Observer
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Books Beyond Words, which has published more than 40 titles on themes ranging from love and relationships to health, death and crime. “People with learning disabilities live rich and diverse lives, and we aim to present as many of life’s facets as possible in our books,” says Lady Hollins. Both acting and the process of putting a book together have been very rewarding endeavours for Hollins, and he had loved working with Grant, she says.
“Acting gives him a kind of freedom to be able to express himself, and working as part of a team producing a book has been an extraordinary experience for him,” she says. “He feels so proud of what he’s achieved with the book, and I know he’s going to be very proud of his role in the play – and we’re all going to be very proud of him.”
When the book by Grant and Hollins – called The Drama Group – was finished, Lady Hollins had the idea of using it to create a storyboard as the basis for a performance. “When we told Hugh he was full of enthusiasm for the idea, and said ‘Do you think there might be a small part in it for me?’”
Which is how Jade Hardrade-Grosz, who co-founded the Baked Bean company 18 years ago with her musician husband Nikko, came to find herself directing Hugh Grant. “It’s not something I ever expected to do, but he’s been a dream to work with,” she says. “Everyone in the company loves him to bits – he’s very popular.”
What she hopes, she says, is that the play will raise awareness about how drama can be life-enhancing for people with a learning disability. “You see them literally blossom in front of your eyes. People with a learning difficulty spend a lot of their lives being told what they can’t do, but we concentrate on what they can do. Any actor gets a huge buzz from the recognition, the applause: and with our actors you see a physical and emotional change in them post-performance. It really does buoy them up in an amazing way.”
Grant, meanwhile, says that the experience of acting with the Baked Bean company has taken him back to his first love, amateur dramatics. “I often have a moan about acting as a job when I’m doing interviews,” he says. “It’s partly because film acting is a bit slow and dull, and partly because I can’t quite bring myself to spout the usual stuff about how wonderful the experience of making whatever film it was has been.
“But amateur acting was always a genuine pleasure. I had a real laugh doing plays at school and university. I genuinely loved the performing, the excitement, the bonding, the romances with the girl playing Masha, the cast parties, the bitching, everything. It’s an experience that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s curious and hasn’t yet tried it.”
At a rehearsal last week, members of the company spoke about how excited they were to be taking part in the performance, which contains snatches of Romeo and Juliet as a “play within a play”.
“It’s the first time I’ve done Shakespeare,” said Kate Powell, 36, who plays Juliet and has Down’s syndrome. “I’ve never done a love story, either. It’s very exciting.” Kate said she had helped Grant and Hollins with their book. “We all sat round the table at Nigel’s parents’ house to help put the book together and Hugh came along too,” she said. “We all made the book together.” Acting, she said, “gives me strength and confidence”.
Hollins spoke about his part in the play and about what his friendship with Grant meant to him. “Hugh Grant is a film star, but he’s going to be in our play,” he said. “He’s got a good part in the play, and I’ve got a good part in it too. In fact I’ve got several parts. Being in his movie was exciting, and it was great that he came to my 40th birthday party. A lot of people there were quite surprised when he arrived!”