I’ve wasted no time in getting to the theatre this year. Last week I got a surprise call from Bhavini at East London Vision, asking me if I wanted to join a group that was going to see the Beauty & The Beast pantomime at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. Of course I said yes, and thankfully was able to get the day off work at short notice, so I went along and joined them. There were some people I knew there from my local group of East London Vision, while a few of the others I hadn’t met before as they’re from a different area. So it was a nice mixture of people. And we all had a lovely time. Oh yes we did! 🙂
We all met at Hornchurch Tube station, and got the bus from there to the Queens Theatre, where we were greeted by the guy doing the audio description, who voluntarily does it for the theatre, and a lady member of the theatre staff. Although they’ve done audio description before, this is the first time they’d be doing a touch tour – and this was just for our group, there was nobody else with us.
The theatre have put on other accessible performances as well though. They’ve done one for people with autism, for instance, which was much calmer. The audience members were able to meet the actors out of costume, so they understood the characters weren’t real, especially the evil witch who may otherwise have scared them. And (as featured on BBC London News), they put on a performance for people with dementia, which had highly visible staff in orange shirts, additional large and bold signage around the building, the house lights left on during the show so people can move around, and reduced sound levels (some of those things may have been true for the autism performance as well). So it’s great that they’re making so much effort with their accessibility, and getting good publicity for it.
The theatre also published a brilliant Visual Story Guide on their website for people with autism and other conditions, who need help to understand the show. Although we didn’t get or need this for our audio described performance, it’s still nice to have it as a souvenir of the day really, given all the photos it contains, and the descriptions of the characters and locations. It’ll help to jog my memory of the show when I look back at it in the future. This isn’t the same as the Disney film of course (which I saw last year with audio description) – this pantomime is unrelated to that version. But it’s still the same basic story of course.
So our visit started with a touch tour, which was very good, allowing us to have a good look around the very nicely designed stage and handling some of the props. A key part of the set design was lots of text on the floor and ceiling, and hanging down from the walls, alternating between Once Upon A Time and Happy Ever After, as if on large, torn pieces of paper.
There was a French café set (as the story is set in Paris) with a table and chairs, above which was a balcony on which some of the musicians sat. I say some, as a lot of the music was performed directly on the stage floor as well – because the actors are also the musicians, which is very impressive! There’s also a vertical bed, so the actors stand beneath the sheets, and it looks like we’re viewing them from above. And there’s a moose’s head at the top of the bed which has light-up eyes and sticks its tongue out as well.
We also got to see the sweets van that pantomime dame Betty Bonbon uses – and we got to meet her in person as well, as the actor playing her came out in costume. Well, 2 costumes in fact. The first was the costume she wears when working as a sweets seller, and the other was a costume she wears after she’s been pulled through a fence! It was wonderful to be able to meet one of the stars of the show like that, as you don’t always get that privilege on touch tours, so it’s lovely that they put aside a bit of time for us.
She was great fun during the show as well. We had to greet her by shouting “Bonjour Betty!” whenever she greeted us. And she ended up picking one guy near the front, John, to be the butt of many of her jokes. There’s also a scene where she gets into a bit of a water fight – but the water pistols, and then larger water blasters, get turned on the audience instead! So we did get hit by a few drops of water, though we didn’t really get wet. They did threaten us all with a large hose as well, but obviously they didn’t use that! And shortly after the start of the second half she took a moment to read out shoutouts to various groups and individuals in the room, so they could give a cheer back, including East London Vision. So that was cool.
The entrance at the right of the stage (as you face it), that wicked witch Spite entered by, was shaped like a tall silhouette of a witch with a pointy hat, and the edges lit up green when she came on, which was a nice touch. And she always got booed, of course.
The entrance at the opposite end of the stage, meanwhile, looked like a piece of paper has been rolled up to create it. And this is where the good guy entered, called Cupid, wearing wings on his back. He was trying to get Prince Friedrich back to normal, after evil witch Spite had turned him into a beast, by getting the beautiful young Amorette to fall in love with him.
Cupid also liked interacting with the audience too. He got us to sing a greeting back each time he came on, from a song by The Darkness. When he sang “I believe in a thing called love”, we had to respond by singing “Just listen to the rhythm of my heart”, in the same high pitched way that The Darkness do it too! So that often generated a giggle from us, because he tended to pop up quite suddenly, to keep us on our toes!
The show was full of performances of other well known songs too, including Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen), Bat Out Of Hell (Meatloaf), Dancing in The Street (Martha & The Vandellas), Here I Go Again (Whitesnake) and Happy (Pharrell Williams), and all sorts of other stuff. It was a great variety from modern songs to older hits, so everybody would be guaranteed to know a few of them and sing along. They were all performed really well too. And they had children who would dance on stage during some of the numbers, who are from local schools. The main cast aren’t from the local area necessarily, but I think the children are.
The audio description worked really well too. The headsets were very simple, wireless devices with a large tactile dial to adjust the volume – which came in handy during the musical numbers, of course. The man doing the audio description was very nice and had a very clear voice, giving us all the key details during the show, so we didn’t miss anything important.
So it was a great afternoon. We really enjoyed the show, with all the music and the comedy, it was a fun way to kick off the year. And at the end we made a live Facebook video to share our thoughts.
And that’s my first theatre show of the year done, hopefully the first of many. I’ll certainly be going to another pantomime or two next Christmas, as they’re still good fun even when you’re an adult. After all, there’s a big kid in all of us!