Stage Beyond Theatre Company members and staff pictured at the Millennium Forum.

Stage Beyond, the theatre company for adults with learning disabilities based in Derry, supported by National Lottery funding through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, will present ‘The Great Dictator’ at the Millennium Forum on 15th June 2022.


Working with visiting director, Kate Guelke, the award-winning company is tackling the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece of the same name in a truly unique production combining slapstick humour with a serious subject close to their hearts.

Stage Beyond is back in action with its first live theatre production since the COVID-19 pandemic, to shine a light on how people with disabilities and learning difficulties have been persecuted in the past.

Drawing on recent historical episodes, ‘The Great Dictator’ asks, is how we treat the vulnerable a measure of our humanity? Based on Chaplin’s 1940 satirical film, Stage Beyond interrogates what happens when society treats disability like a crime.

Frank Nelis – Dictator Heidi.

The hard-hitting storyline takes place in Pandora, a country at war where people deemed as ‘different’ are disappearing. Dictator Heidi (Frank Nelis) has a doppelganger – Brian (Bryan Sutherland), a decorator. When Brian’s sister Hannah (Alison Smyth) goes missing, he discovers a terrible secret at his local hospital. In a bizarre case of mistaken identity, fate offers him the chance to change history.

Alison Smyth – Hannah.

Gilly Campbell, Head of Community Arts and Education, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented: “The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is proud to support Stage Beyond, a company that provides valuable opportunities for adults with learning disabilities to access and participate in theatre, make friends, learn new skills, and increase their confidence and self-esteem.

“They overcame the challenges faced during COVID-19 restrictions to embark on this latest theatrical milestone for the company and I look forward to seeing the energy, commitment, and creativity that they will bring to the Millennium Forum once again in ‘The Great Dictator’.”  


Kate Guelke, Visiting Director at Stage Beyond for ‘The Great Dictator’, said: “Stage Beyond has a huge natural affinity with comedy. Chaplin’s masterpiece – combining slapstick humour with a serious subject – seemed the obvious choice for our new production. This is a massive undertaking but knowing the company’s track record tackling classics – most recently their award-winning ‘Hamlet’ – I knew ‘The Great Dictator’ would work.

“Many members of the company are very politically engaged, especially when it comes to disability rights activism. We wanted to shine a light on how people with disabilities and learning difficulties have been persecuted in the past. This company is doing some really important work, their commitment and interest in the subject matter and the bravery to face it head-on has been extraordinary.

“This is a truly unique theatrical event and I hope the audience will laugh, cry, cheer and feel as much as we have in rehearsal!”


Bernie Shiels, Chair of the Board of Stage Beyond and one of the original members who is also performing in ‘The Great Dictator’, said she was immensely proud of the company in rising to their latest theatrical challenge.

“It is important for us not to shy away from the reality of what happened to people like us in the past. It has been quite an emotional process at times working openly and inclusively as a team on the script itself and in rehearsals but as with all Stage Beyond productions, there is a good mix of comedy and positive overall message that as people with learning disabilities, we are all part of society just like everybody else.”


Dee Conaghan, Artistic Director of Stage Beyond, said she was prouder than ever of the company members in taking on such a challenging and confronting production. Members of Stage Beyond’s youth outreach programme funded by BBC Children in Need, will also be taking part in ‘The Great Dictator’ with Jean Dunne, the company’s lead drama facilitator and Niamh McCarron, drama graduate intern, also working alongside the visiting director.

Dee added: “It is an absolute joy for us to work with talented and committed company members who embrace new material with such enthusiasm while supporting each other and also having fun, which is the central ethos of Stage Beyond.”

The performance takes place at the Millennium Forum, on Wednesday 15th June 2022 at 7.30pm. Tickets priced £11.50 (concessions available) can be booked at www.millenniumforum.co.uk

Please note: This production contains sensitive historical material.