Preview: Sing Something Simple

Helen Nugent talks to Vanessa Brooks, artistic director of Dark Horse theatre company, and actor Joe Sproulle about showcasing actors with and without learning disabilities

Hero image

“We are our craft, not our actors’ disabilities.” This is the guiding principle of Huddersfield-based theatre company Dark Horse, an ensemble of learning disabled actors and their non-learning disabled counterparts. As the name suggests, this pioneering collaboration has the power to challenge expectations.

“We were called Full Body & The Voice but it was very hard for people to remember and some thought we were a slimming club,” says Vanessa Brooks, Dark Horse’s artistic director. “The previous name was when the company was a community project whereas now we are a national touring company. We wanted a name and identity that reflected that.”

The dictionary definition of Dark Horse is “a person about whom little is known, especially one with extraordinary abilities and talents”. Given the company’s mission to develop the skills of actors with learning disabilities and promote work in tandem with non-learning disabled actors, the moniker seems apt.

Starting from its base at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Dark Horse is about to undertake its first national tour with the world premiere of Sing Something Simple, a new bitter-sweet comedy written and directed by Brooks.

The show centres on a family of musicians as they wrestle with fame, fortune and what it really means to “make it to the top”.
The lead is Dark Horse actor Joe Sproulle, who plays the part of Spencer Parkin, grandson of a successful session singer, brother to his mother’s golden boy and the least vocally talented member of the family.

As with previous productions, Sproulle will appear alongside non-learning disabled actors. Brookes, an established playwright whose work has been produced across the globe, says all Dark Horse actors are trained to drama school standard.

“People don’t expect people with learning difficulties to do all the things that you have to do as a professional actor. We are about equality and giving our actors the tools to enable them to work in an industry on equal terms. We are not saying the industry should change for us.”

In a profession awash with revivals, Dark Horse’s commitment to providing something different extends to its programme: all of its work is new writing. Brooks explains:

“Our plays are not issue-based, they are not about disability, they’re just about great theatre and great work. In the rehearsal process, everyone learns from everyone else.”

Sproulle agrees. “Being an actor is hard work at Dark Horse and we take it very seriously. I’ve trained for three years with the company and know that I need to keep training to do this kind of work.

“It’s very disciplined. But it’s amazing – you can learn lots of new skills and I’ve been in brilliant world premiere productions.

“With Dark Horse I also worked on the TV show Shameless. All the actors here work as a part of an ensemble, a team, and this is the most important thing about how we work.”

Sproulle had always wanted to be an actor but it hasn’t been easy.

“This was the only way I was going to get into the acting profession as my reading and writing weren’t good enough for any other course. At Dark Horse you don’t need these skills or even to be good at speaking because of the silent approach.”

He says it’s been difficult to fulfil his dream “because it’s all about using your listening and concentration and I’ve had to work hard on my diction too. I used to find it very hard to listen and really stay still and concentrate. It also means training very hard.”

Despite the hard graft, Sproulle relishes his job. “So far rehearsals for Sing Something Simple have to be the hardest work I’ve ever done for the company, it’s very physical and there’s a lot of stage business and movement to learn. It’s going very well though.”

Sing Something Simple ,6-7 March, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, then touring (

Interact: Responses to Preview: Sing Something Simple

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.