HAMPSHIRE’S Blue Apple Theatre is to receive a £293,500 grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Reaching Communities project.

The charity, for adult actors with learning difficulties, will use the cash to increase the number of theatre and dance classes it offers, employ an administrative manager and possibly expand to operate outside the city.

Blue Apple Theatre, which holds its sessions at The Tower Arts Centre at Winchester’s Kings’ School and The Discovery Centre, will receive the money over the next five years.

Charity chairman Paul Lewis said they were extremely grateful for the grant: “This money will allow us to consolidate what we do. We have a long waiting list of people who want to take part.

“A lot of people with learning difficulties are segregated from society.

For quite a few of our members coming to our sessions once or more a week is a big event in their lives.

“They take away a lot from the classes – gaining confidence, as well as learning about relationships and how to put themselves across in public.”

Blue Apple Theatre was formed in 2005 by Jane Jessop, whose son Tommy, 29, has since become the first British actor with Down’s Syndrome to star in a BBC prime time drama – Coming Down the Mountain. He has also appeared in Casualty.

Originally part of Mencap Winchester, its membership numbers have grown since its formation from 25 to 70 actors.

They take part in weekly workshops and dance classes which culminate in public performances and theatre tours.

The charity’s production of Hamlet was the subject of the recent BBC documentary Growing Up Down’s.

Blue Apple Theatre’s current running costs are just over £100,000 a year.

It receives Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council grants but, until now, has been largely dependent on donations to underpin its work.

The company performed Tales From The Arabian Nights at the Theatre Royal Winchester over the weekend.