Theatre & Dance

‘There is a feeling of “why has it not happened before?”’: Actor Ed Larkin on becoming the first wheelchair user in 350 years to lead a West End musical

Agnes, a physiotherapist, has been assigned new patient Henry, a young man struggling to come to terms with his diagnosis after a life-changing accident. “Disabled’s not a swear word,” Agnes tells him and his family, as she wheels across the stage confidently. “Henry is disabled. I’m disabled. I’m disabled in this hospital, and, yes, I’m even more disabled out there. And you know what, lifts can get fixed, ramps can get built. What we need to do, right here, right now, is focus on the things we can do, and stop being such a bunch of bloody can’ts.”

It’s a powerful – and tongue-in-cheek – speech, delivered by one disabled actor to another in what is, shockingly, the first of its kind, a West End musical featuring a wheelchair user in a lead role. In taking on the role, Ed Larkin has overturned 350 years of hidebound thinking.

The Little Big Things is based on Henry Fraser’s bestselling memoir; it’s the story of a man processing loss and re-finding his identity after a diving accident on holiday left him tetraplegic. As the adaptation recalls moments of Fraser’s life both before and after the event, the easiest thing would’ve been for the show’s creators to cast a non-disabled actor in the role (the default approach up to now). Yet “it’s important we have people with lived experience of disability playing roles – a way to show the world there is great disabled talent out there,” associate director Nickie Miles-Wildin tells me. And so disabled actor Ed Larkin was cast to play Henry post-accident, while Jonny Amies plays him pre-accident.

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