With both the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final and The Forest of Forgotten Discos, Saturday was very much a day of glitterball celebrations for my two young sons.

Aged 7 and 5, the boys have an exhausting exuberance and a propensity for sibling quarrels. A few seconds before entering Hope Mill, I become concerned about whether they are in the right mood for watching theatre.

I needn’t have worried.

From the second we enter Hope Mill and select the ‘green’ smiley face to say that we are happy to interact with and respond to the cast, I instantly feel calm.

Relaxed performances welcome people who might find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre behaviour, such as people with learning disabilities, movement disorders, autistic spectrum disorder and those with young children or babies. The form that a relaxed performance takes varies with the venue and the type of performance taking place. Here it is characterised by a laid-back atmosphere, seating choices that consist of floor cushions as well as more formal options, break-out areas and photos on the wall to familiarise the audience with the characters they will encounter once they enter the main auditorium.

After having the chance to take part in craft activities and before entering the main theatre space, we are ‘zapped’ by a character from the play. Alexa is a robot from the Amazon Rainforest (!) who is made of forgotten technology and, with the help of her old Sky remote zapper, she decides that my eldest is going to be an evil genius when he is older. She was obviously watching him in action on the way in.

Encountering the set is a feast for the senses; it contains a real eclectic mix of materials and textures.  Delightful details include crocheted granny squares in bright colours, crinkly crackly rubbish and multicoloured trees with various toys hanging down, from dinosaurs to stickle bricks.

Written by Jackie Hagan and directed by Nickie Miles-Wildin, The Forest of Forgotten Discos follows the story of a girl named Red (played by Paislie Reid) who enters a forest and meets a range of bears with amusing names – Bear Hugs (Sara Cocker), Bear Minimum (Ali Briggs) and Bear Grills (Marcquelle Ward). Red hears about how the forest has changed over time. Alexa and the bears strive to bring back music and laughter to the forest, whilst also helping Red with her own family dilemmas. As the story unfolds, the characters use integrated sign language in a creative way that suits their differing characters. It is lovely to learn that this is a feature of all performances, not just the relaxed performance.

The wonderful sensory experience established by the set continues throughout the play itself – sparkles are thrown, a glitterball and Christmas lights take centre stage and the audience are encouraged to join the cast in a joyful dance. The moments of audience participation are particularly effective, and the cast are careful to take heed of the traffic light smiley face stickers when making judgments about who to select for the activities. Both of my boys took part in a ‘sprout catcher’ game, which they loved.

In some respects, however, the intended age for the play seems slightly confused. My sons’ attention flounders a little in the sections about Red’s dilemma with her father and his girlfriend, whilst other aspects of the play may seem a little childish to children much older than them. That said, there are some lovely messages about recognising yet accepting difference, which work on different levels depending on the age of the child.

Despite the fact neither I nor any family or friends have a specific need for the relaxed environment, I really enjoy the sense of inclusivity and lack of pressure that relaxed performances bring. Contact, Hope Mill and the many other theatres across Manchester that now offer relaxed performances as part of their standard runs should be applauded. But what is perhaps most worthy of note here is that every performance of The Forest of Forgotten Discos is designed to be an accessible and inclusive experience. Jackie and Nickie, please keep doing what you do.

The Forest of Forgotten Discos is produced by Contact and runs at Hope Mill Theatre until 23rd December 2018

Photo credit: Lee Baxter

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