What – in January? Ah but this was in the cosy confines of the Vaudeville Theatre in London to see The Wind in the Willows. For once we went en famile and yes, amazingly it was relaxing – why? Because it was the first time we have ever attended a special ‘relaxed’ theatre performance and going on today’s experience it hopefully won’t be the last.
Ellen loves going to the cinema, but has not been prepared to go to the theatre for years; it’s probably our own fault, taking her to see War House at The National when she was around 12 was not a wise move. The gunshots and blasts were pretty terrifying and she ended up spending most of the show in the foyer. As a family, we love going to the theatre; and with London on our doorstep with all its amazing West End shows I have felt that Ellen has really been missing out. So, when I saw that a relaxed performance of The Wind in the Willows was coming up, I felt it might be the right time to try again and so I booked tickets.
Relaxed theatre productions have been slowly trickling into the West End since 2012, the show is the same but is made more welcoming to people with special needs and in particular those with autism or other communication difficulties. The lighting may be adjusted, the sound reduced and above all, no one minds if the audience shouts out or jumps up and down during the show. In addition, if you do end up in the foyer, the show is screened so you can continue to watch it from a safe distance as this newspaper article from 2013 explains http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/jun/16/relaxed-theatre-autistic-children
What was particularly impressive about this performance; organised by the Mousetrap Theatre Project, was that about two weeks before the performance I was emailed a social story which covered not only how to to travel to the theatre, but also contained a list of characters with photos and a detailed breakdown of each scene telling us exactly what was going to happen and if there were going to be any loud noises, scary bits or, as in this performance, snow falling on the audience in the stalls.
Ellen wasn’t keen on the train up; in fact she ran so far up the platform that we only just managed to get down again in time to catch the train. Our journey across London was punctuated with calls for ‘go home now’ which continued as we made our way into the theatre and found our seats. But, it didn’t matter. All around us other kids were settling down, putting sound definders on, jumping, squealing and flapping and we felt right at home. Luckily, they were selling little figures of the characters and once Ellen had got ‘Ratty’ to sit with Sher Khan and Bagherra she was fine.
The show was magical. Alan Titchmarsh was the narrator and the animals danced and mimed their way through the story. The lack of speech and the reliance on body language and gesture was perfect for this special audience. I actually felt that the shout outs and comments added to rather than detracted from the performance. This was no quietly studious crowd but an animated and energetic one. At one point during the first half, an autistic boy suddenly mounted the stage and spent a few minutes circulating round whilst the characters carried on with the story. Eventually Alan Titchmarsh managed to gently guide him back to the steps where he was helped off the stage by his family – to much applause from the audience.
By the time the interval arrived Ellen was gripped, and Ratty was joined by the other three main characters, ‘Mole’, ‘Badger’ and ‘Toad’. There were no more unscheduled interruptions and the whole audience seemed to be swept away with the magic of the afternoon. By the time Scene 11 arrived and along with it Goodbye from all the characters, I had spotted quite a few smiles on Ellen’s face. A positive memory has been formed and I made sure I reinforced it (thank you RDI) by saying ‘that was a great theatre trip’ and ‘you looked like you enjoyed yourself’. Ellen spotted posters for The Lion King on the tube on the way home and is definitely up for another trip. ‘Not today though’ she wisely added.
The train on the way home was completely packed. Only four carriages for the hoardes of visitors and football fans travelling home. Ellen spotted a seat next in the corner next to a very large man. He kindly got up to let her in, but then she wouldn’t let him sit down again. ‘No – Mum sit here’ she demanded and the poor man really had no choice but to give up his seat for me, so I even managed to get a relaxing (once my burning cheeks had faded) journey home.