The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios: in a different class

Ruling Class blog_header

I first saw James McAvoy on the stage nearly two years ago in March 2013. He was playing the lead role in Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios. It was Director Jamie Lloyd’s first season of his ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ seasons, with the second one on now. It was also the first time I had ever seen a play captioned by STAGETEXT to make it accessible to me, and it changed my life.

At the time, I had been progressively losing my hearing for over three years, which had left me very hard of hearing. I was struggling to hear anything and to be able to communicate with people, so it was a difficult time for me. When I saw my first captioned performance, it was a complete revelation to me. It opened up my eyes to the joys and wonders of seeing live accessible theatre. I could actually enjoy it on equal terms to everyone else in the audience.

James McAvoy was incredible in this raw, bloody production, giving a truly captivating performance as the powerful but flawed Macbeth. He ended up being destroyed by his own blood-thirsty ambition and tortured by his own guilt at the murders he’d committed in his relentless quest to be King. His gripping performance left a lasting impression on me.

Ruling Class blog_Macbeth

As soon as I found out that James McAvoy would be returning to star in Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios, I knew I had to buy tickets to see it. I rushed down to the Box Office the same day and bought tickets for my wife and myself, along with some of my deaf and hard of hearing friends, to see the captioned performance.

When I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios last Monday night, the place was packed. I think the combination of the popularity and fame of James McAvoy and the fact that tickets are priced at only £15 every Monday night to appeal to a more diverse, younger crowd of theatregoers than the usual West End crowd, added to the busyness of the theatre.

Ruling Class blog_Richard + ticket

Right from the start, I was hooked. The opening scene was shocking, showing the accidental death of the pompous 13th Earl of Gurney in a bizarre sexually-motivated hanging scene, with him dressed in a ballet tutu and three-corner cocked hat. James McAvoy, as his son Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, then inherits his title and all his estate, but the problem is that he is a paranoid schizophrenic, who thinks he is Jesus Christ and has just spent the previous seven years in a psychiatric hospital.

McAvoy is brilliant as the psychotic, deluded Jack living in his fantasy world believing he is God. He rushes around the stage dressed in a white suit with a carnation, telling his horrified family that the is “The God of Love”, and when they ask how he knows he is God, he replies “When I pray to Him, I find I’m talking to myself”. He comes across as a flower-power hippy sort of God living in a trippy, psychedelic dream where everyone loves each other, and he even sleeps on a cross, which was in the middle of the stage. He seemed to have a magnetic presence on the stage, mixing boyish charm with weird, psychotic undertones.

Ruling Class blog_JC

The plot then focuses on his family scheming to have him sectioned so that they can take control of the family estate, but not before having him married off to the local floozy, who his uncle has had an affair with, so that he can produce an heir first. The whole thing is really surreal but very funny, in a very dark sort of way. The dialogue is crazy but very cleverly crafted too, mixing very old-fashioned, aristocratic language with weird gobble-de-gook that spurts out of McAvoy’s mouth when he is ranting psychotically, like verbal diarrhoea. At times the cast also spontaneously burst into song, singing away like they are in the middle of a pantomime. It was hilarious.

Ruling Class blog_Clare+ Shelly

Eventually, the young Jack goes from thinking he’s Jesus Christ to thinking he’s Jack the Ripper, with tragic consequences. McAvoy transforms himself from God-like and serene to the sneering, nasty, aristocratic Earl of Gurney/Jack the Ripper, who then manages to convince his family that he has become “normal” and been cured. He then takes his place in the House of Lords in a very macabre scene towards the end where the other Lords and judges there are shown as decrepit skeletons, covered in cobwebs.

Ruling Class blog_Jack The Ripper

I hadn’t heard of this play before but I found out that Peter Barnes wrote it in the 1960s. It was the era of the Profumo affair when the aristocracy and privileged elite ruled the country, with the class system being firmly entrenched. Barnes was mocking the class system and political hierarchy of the time, where the aristocracy believed they had a God-given right to rule the rest of us. I think that this has a lot of relevance to today’s society. We still live in an age where the super-rich, aristocrats and political elite class rule our society, and social inequality is greater than ever.

Ruling Class blog_McAvoy as King

The theme of the aristocratic ruling classes looking down upon the working classes is a constant theme running throughout the play. When Jack commits his first murder of Lady Claire, everyone immediately assumes that the murder was committed by his alcoholic, working class butler Daniel Tucker. Also, in an earlier scene, Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles Gurney, thinks nothing of getting his mistress with a broad Cockney accent Grace Shelley to pretend to be the Lady of the Camelias from the opera La Traviata, to con Jack into marrying her. But the artistocratic class is mocked constantly through this play too.

Ruling Class blog_butler

I thought that all the actors played their roles brilliantly, but James McAvoy stole the show with his magnetic presence on the stage. Well done to Alex, the captioner from STAGETEXT too for captioning such bizarre, difficult dialogue. The only problem was that the caption unit was placed high above the stage so it was difficult for us to keep looking down at the stage and back up to read the captions from where we were sitting, as we were seated quite low down. Also, there was a Q&A session with some of the cast and Jamie Lloyd afterwards but I didn’t stay for this as there was no live speech-to-text reporting provided. It would be better if this could be provided next time, if they are thinking of having another Q&A session on a captioned night.

Overall though, this was a great production. I really enjoyed it, and from the reaction from my wife and friends afterwards, so did they. It was surprising, shocking, funny and deliciously dark. It’s well worth seeing, if you haven’t already!

Ruling Class blog_McAvoy + Lloyd

Incloodu: A celebration of deaf creativity and talent

A couple of weeks ago I volunteered at the ‘Incloodu’ Deaf Arts Festival in Bethnal Green, London. I had been looking forward to this event for quite a long time and the Directors and organisers of it had been planning it for at least a year beforehand.

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Incloodu was first held at the Rich Mix arts centre in 2013, so it was in its third year. It is one of the country’s biggest events celebrating deaf and hard of hearing culture, bringing together a diverse mix of artists, musicians, dancers, actors and comedians to perform on stage and run various workshops during the day.

The idea of this festival is to bring together and showcase the incredible creative, diverse talent within the deaf and hard of hearing community. It was a free, fun family-friendly event during the day and a ticket-only event for adults in the evening. It was also intended to be fully accessible and inclusive for everyone, whether deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or hearing, as there was captioning and live speech-to-text reporting done by STAGETEXT, as well as British Sign Language (BSL) interpreting and a voiceover.

I had promised to volunteer during the day so after an early start on the Saturday morning I arrived at Rich Mix at 9am ready to receive my volunteers’ briefing for the day. The other volunteers were a great bunch of people. I already knew a few of them quite well, so it was really good to catch up with them and I made some more new friends too. That’s one of the things that I like most about volunteering. You get to meet some great new people, who you work alongside, sharing laughs and ideas with. It also helps increase your confidence and makes you feel like you have a common purpose greater than yourself, which is to help and encourage others.

Incloodu blog_volunteers

The event started at 11am so after my initial briefing and making some final preparations I met and chatted to various members of the public as they arrived, showing them to their seats in the main hall and trying to make them feel welcome.

I made some new friends there and I also bumped into some old friends, like my first sign language teacher and some people I had met previously from the deaf community. Joanna my wife arrived, along with some other deaf and hard of hearing friends, who had arranged to meet each other there. It was great to see the place really busy and buzzing with people chatting and signing away with each other. There were quite a few families there too, who seemed to be having a really good time together.

One of my favourite performances on the main stage was by Handprint Theatre. They did a brilliant series of sketches, which were acted and signed in a very visual, creative way. They started off acting as office commuters travelling to work on a packed tube train. They were all dressed in suits, acting very reserved and trying to ignore each other while trying to read a magazine article over each other’s shoulders. This was so realistic as it reminded me of what travelling to work on the tube in rush-hour is like everyday.

Then they switched to acting out a scene in the office itself, with the workers trying not to get disturbed by the noise of other people’s loud conversations on the phone while they were working and people gossiping in the office. But the best scene was where it suddenly switched to the middle of a jungle where the workers were supposed to be on a team-building event. They were all dressed in safari gear, being harassed by mosquitos swirling around them and biting them, much to their annoyance.

Incloodu blog_Handprint
(photo by Lizzie Ward-Mclaughlan)

It then finished off as they all joined in singing to Katy Perry’s song ‘Roar’, while acting out the sounds and movements of lions roaring in the jungle. You had to be there to really appreciate it, as it was a very visual and expressive performance, which I think would appeal to deaf and hearing people alike, as you didn’t need any language to appreciate the humour. I really noticed the actors’ very funny facial expressions and exaggerated body movements.

Handprint also later did a workshop with children upstairs where they were getting them involved in acting out as lions and tigers. I think it’s great for children to get involved in these things as it teaches them to be expressive and creative, while also helping to build their confidence.

I also enjoyed Deafinitely Theatre’s BSL interpreted performance of a few scenes from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and the young children and teenagers associated with this company acted it in a very modern way, bringing it right up-to-date. Again, it was a very visual performance, with the signing incorporated into the acting in a very natural way.

Incloodu_Deafinitely Theatre

My other highlight was the act ‘Deaf Men Dancing’. This involved two men dancing to music on stage, but they performed in a very visually expressive way, where the focus was on their body movements and interpretation of the music. This was against the backdrop of some very slick, stylish moving images on the big screens behind them, giving the impression of elegant movement and beautiful artwork. In fact, I was very impressed with the artwork and visual images flashing up onto the big screens around the stage the whole day. It looked like a very slick production, which was complemented by STAGETEXT’s live captioning and speech-to-text reporting.

Incloodu_Deaf Men Dancing
(photo by Lizzie Ward-Mclaughlan)

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay for the evening’s entertainment as I had to be somewhere else but I understood from my friends who watched it that there was a really good mixture of comedy, music from a drum band and poetry recital by a deaf poet, amongst other things. They said they had had a really good time and didn’t get home until the early hours, so they must have enjoyed themselves.

This was a really good arts event. Well done to the Directors Mark, Ruby, Amanda and everyone involved at Incloodu, including all the fabulous volunteers and people working at Rich Mix. They all helped make it such a fun, inclusive event and a great success. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Incloodu!

Inclood blog_Directors
(photo by Amanda-Jane Richards)

Information Age at the Science Museum: The Web Brings Freedom and Equality to Deaf People

Last October I was invited to the opening of the new ‘Information Age’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London. I felt really honoured to be part of this event, which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen, who sent her first ever tweet. It was the culmination of a project I had been involved in lasting several months, with a group of hard of hearing people working with the Science Museum.

Information Age blog_Queen

The project’s aim was to help the Science Museum tell the stories of how the World Wide Web has changed the lives of hard of hearing people. We worked together on this project, sharing our ideas about how the Internet has transformed our lives, making it much easier for us to communicate with others on an equal basis, find out and share information and socialise with other people. You can find out more about the project here.

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/information_age/participants/web-hearing-project.aspx

The Internet has really opened up the world to many deaf and hard of hearing people. It makes you feel part of a wider online community and support network. I know it really helped me to be able to communicate with other people and seek deaf peer support when I became deafened a few years ago and I felt very isolated.

Some members of this group made short films about how the Internet has had a massive impact on them and changed their lives. These films are now being shown at the exhibition in the Science Museum, as part of an interactive digital screen display, which is captioned and interpreted into BSL. I worked with my friend Andrew on one of the videos shown at the exhibition.

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In it, Andrew, who is hard of hearing, describes how without access to the web, there are huge barriers to communication for him. Asking directions for him, when he is in an unfamiliar area, is a nerve-wracking experience, as, like most deaf and hard of hearing people, he finds it difficult to follow what other people are saying. He describes how it is so much easier for him to search for directions and maps on his smartphone, and to arrange to meet up with people for a drink or to watch the football in a pub, for instance, through instant messaging and texting.

Information Age blog_Andrew

It reminds me of when I wanted to watch my football team Manchester City play in the FA Cup Final a few years ago. At that time I didn’t want to go out or socialise with anyone apart from my wife and immediate family because I found it too difficult to follow and communicate with anyone, so it was much less frustrating for me to stay at home. But it would be the first time that City had been in the FA Cup final for thirty-five years, so I really didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of finally seeing my team playing in the Cup Final at Wembley. In the end I was lucky to get my ticket from a friend online and I arranged to meet my friends and family there through social media. It would have been impossible for me to make the arrangements without the web and in the end Manchester City beat Stoke 1-0, which was fantastic! I had a really great day, even though I could hear very little.

Information Age blog_RT + Andrew

In another video we see Ruby, who is hard of hearing, using Skype to speak to her friends and family. “The web has changed my life, by making me feel equal to everyone”, she says. I think that communicating on equal terms to everyone else is one of the most important and powerful aspects of the web for deaf and hard of hearing people.

In her video Lidia expands on this idea of the web bringing the deaf and hard of hearing community together and empowering them. She describes how empowering it is to get the information you need from the web. “Being given the information you need empowers you in some ways and gives you the chance to take charge of your life”, she explains.

I went back to see the ‘Information Age’ exhibition with my wife last week. It celebrates 200 years of innovation in communication and information technologies and it is divided into six zones, each representing a different information and communication technology network: The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast, The Constellation, The Cell and The Web.

Information Age_Richard

The whole exhibition is completely accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people and in each zone, there are lots of interactive videos, which are captioned and interpreted on screen into BSL. There are also very clear hearing loops throughout the exhibition. The videos explain the stories behind these groundbreaking historic technical inventions and new communication media.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the exhibition. It was absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit. Some of my highlights were looking at the first telephone inventions, some of the very first radios and TV sets of the 1940s and 1950s, the first computers and mobile phones right up to the present day with social media and the latest smartphones.

Information Age blog_exhibition

Some of it makes me feel really old! I can remember having a BBC computer in the 1980s, which was state-of-the-art at the time but now looks almost like an antique. I can also remember having a ‘121’ mobile phone in the early 1990s, which now looks like a brick compared to the compact smartphone I have today.

Information Age blog_web

One section had the original NeXT computer, which was developed by Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computers. It showed the original Internet interface from 1990. The display described how British man Tim Berners Lee, who worked at CERN in Switzerland, invented the idea of a ‘WorldWideWeb’ a year earlier in 1989 as a global information management system for CERN. He described a ‘web’ of ‘hypertext documents that could be viewed by browsers. It is incredible how much and how rapidly the web has developed since those early days.

Information Age blog_Tim Berners Lee

I also found it fascinating to discover the story of Alexander Graham Bell there, who invented the telephone, and learn about his connection to the deaf community. He was born in Edinburgh in 1847. His mother was profoundly deaf, so he learned to communicate with her through basic sign language. His mother’s deafness led him to become preoccupied with studying acoustics and the idea of transmitting speech by turning electricity into sound.

Later, he moved with his family to the US where he became a teacher at a Deaf school in Boston. There he met a profoundly Deaf student called Mabel Hubbard, who later became his wife. In 1875 after researching and studying the physics of sound technology and transmitting speech he invented a simple receiver for turning electricity into sound.

Information Age_Bell exhibition

A year later, in 1876, he set up the Bell Telephone Co and his device was patented. It became the first satisfactory working telephone and it quickly became a common sight in households across America. Despite this, he considered his most famous invention an intrusion on his real work as a scientist and teacher of the Deaf. He even refused to have a telephone in his own study. I didn’t know his story before and how he invented the telephone as a direct result of his lifelong research into hearing and speech because of his wife and mother’s deafness.

This exhibition makes you realise how much information technology and communication has moved on in the last two hundred years. In fact, it has only been in the last twenty to twenty-five years that digital technology, such as the Internet, social media and mobile phones, has had such a massive impact on our lives. It has been a real game-changer in terms of giving deaf and hard of hearing people the opportunity to communicate with others on an equal basis, giving us a voice and breaking down the barriers to inclusion in our society. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring?

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Tony Law: Back in the ToneZone

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I had a brilliant night out last week, which was a great start to my New Year. I went to see comedian Tony Law’s live comedy show ‘Enter the ToneZone’ at the Soho Theatre Comedy Club. Claire Hill provided the live subtitling, the same stenographer who did it the first time I saw him there, over a year ago.

I was really excited to go and watch him again after enjoying his show so much last time. In fact, this would be the third time, because I first saw him at a ‘Stand Up for Labour’ comedy night by chance about four years ago shortly after I first started to lose my hearing due to an illness. A friend of mine invited me to a live comedy night with various stand-up comedians. There was no live subtitling there, so even though I enjoyed Tony’s act as it was the first time I had seen it, I missed out on a lot of the humour and dialogue because I struggled to hear what he was saying.

When I saw him again at the Soho Theatre Comedy Club a year ago it was much easier for me to follow because of the live subtitling. At the time I was waiting for my cochlear implant assessment, having lost most of my hearing by then. It was a difficult time for me, so just being able to laugh along with the other people in the audience without feeling awkward or embarrassed because I had missed out on the punchlines was wonderful for me. His act was very funny, in a crazy, surreal sort of way. https://turnerrichard7.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/tony-law-at-the-soho-theatre-nonsense-made-accessible/

Tony Law blog Jan 15_poster

So, I wondered what it would be like to see him this time, not only with the subtitling but also now that I can hear much better again with my new cochlear implant. I arrived with my wife Joanna and friend Andrew, who is also partially deaf but wears hearing aids. We were seated in the front row really close to the stage, which was great, as we felt more connected to the show.

Tony burst onto the stage in a very strange tight onesie, complete with feathers, which looked like they had come straight from a Red Indian’s headdress, to cover his modesty. Immediately, he started joking about and playing around with the subtitles suddenly appearing on the big screen behind him. Like last time, he was delighting in trying to test Claire, the stenographer, to type his crazy, rapid words on the screen, and he seemed delighted that she was keeping up with him at lightning speed.

Tony Law blog Jan 15_burst on stage

Sitting in the front row, it was the first time I had ever heard his voice and I could hear it really clearly. Throughout his act, he put on lots of different accents, which I could pick up this time when I couldn’t before and it was really funny. On the screen behind him, Claire was typing not just what Tony was saying but how he was saying it, which was something I hadn’t noticed before. For instance, she typed things like (“East End Cockney gangster”) and described the strange sounds he was making, which must be difficult to do.

I contacted Claire a few days afterwards and asked her how she prepared for a comedy show like Tony Law’s and how she managed to keep up with his fast, crazy dialogue. She told me that it takes quite a lot of preparation beforehand. She started off by getting an audio recording of his show from a couple of nights before at the same venue. She ran through the recording a couple of times, and wrote one-stroke short forms for phrases/words that she knew he would use such as “dead dog”, “Genghis Khan” and “I love the world”. This saves time for her, ensures accuracy on the night and also means that punchlines appear quicker on the screen. She said that this works best if comedians stick to roughly the same order, but on the night, Tony didn’t, but it always helps.

She said it was difficult to accurately write Tony’s act, not so much because of the speed but because of the accents and sounds he makes. Although she had prepared some (like “posh” and “Cockney gangster”, some “need to be written on the fly”, she explained, “so I have to think how to represent the sound he’s making in words, and then write it, in time to keep the deaf audience up with the comedy.

Tony Law blog Jan 15_subtitling

I think she did a fantastic job! I couldn’t stop laughing throughout his act. When he started, it was like he was just spurting words out of his mouth like a machine gun, unable to control them and unaware of where he was going to lead us. He gives you the impression that it’s all unprepared and totally spontaneous. But after a while, you realise that it is all planned and it will all come right in the end, whilst giving you the impression of it being utter nonsense. You can’t help but laugh at it. You have to see him live to appreciate his humour. He is infectious.

At one point during the act he told us that he was really sad because his wife’s sausage dog ‘Cartridge Davidson’ had recently died after she had had him for fourteen years and he had been her constant companion, never leaving her side. I thought it was going to get really sad but he then started to tell us hilariously funny stories about what Cartridge used to get up to, such as how he used to sit watching the fridge for food and diving on their bed at the most inappropriate times.

Later, he did a routine, which involved using music and dance, which he described as a new kind of expressive ‘punk rock’ art form. He suddenly dragged my friend Andrew, who was right in the front row next to me, up onto the stage. Andrew handled it all amazingly well, as Tony kept throwing a large inflatable striped beach ball for him to catch on the stage in slow motion. Watching this beach ball scene in front of me with Tony and Andrew throwing the ball back and forth between each other was a bit like watching an amateurish ‘Cirque du Soleil’ meets ‘Monty Python’, and I couldn’t stop laughing at how surreal it all looked.

Tony Law blog Jan 15_beachball

For his finale, Tony finished up with a crazy song, and once again dragged up poor Andrew and several other people from the front row to accompany him and throw balls to each other across the stage. It certainly was different, but incredibly funny, and it had myself, along with the rest of the audience, in stitches.

Although I have enjoyed Tony’s show every time I have seen it, this time I think I enjoyed it most of all. Maybe it’s because I got the full experience, being able to not only follow him through the subtitles, but also hear him better too, and appreciate the different accents and sounds he does. Or maybe it’s because I think he’s getting better too. I don’t know. It’s probably a combination of all that, and more. I just find him incredibly funny, in a crazy sort of way. I met him briefly after the show on the way out and I told him how much I had enjoyed his show. He was really friendly and approachable.

I would like to thank Claire Hill and the Soho Theatre for providing this access for deaf and hard of hearing people that night. It was great. I will be watching out for more live subtitled comedy shows like this in the future. Claire told me that the next show to be subtitled there will be Josie Long on 27th January. I hope that there will be more of them in the future, as there are currently not enough. It would be great for deaf and hard of hearing people to have better access to live comedy shows and enjoy a great night out!

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The Soho Theatre website:

http://sohotheatre.com/whats-on/tony-law-enter-the-tonezone/

Tony Law’s website:

http://www.mrtonylaw.com

Peter Pan at the Chickenshed: a magical, inclusive adventure

Peter Pan header

Last weekend I went with a group of deaf and hard of hearing friends to see an accessible performance of ‘Peter Pan’ at the Chickenshed theatre in North London. We were all really excited to see this Christmas show and it was the first time that I had ever seen a performance at the Chickenshed.

Two of my friends, Lizzie and Sarah, have a personal connection with the Chickenshed theatre company, since they have both been involved in it since they were young children and their mother works as the in-house captioner there, having been trained by STAGETEXT. Sarah now works as the Assistant Sign Director there too.

It is a fairly small, intimate theatre, but that night it was absolutely full. The stage set was beautiful, and it felt like you were walking into a children’s magical dream, complete with fairies and Neverland adventures.

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Once the performance started, I was immediately struck by how accessible and inclusive the whole experience was for everyone, deaf and hearing. The live captioning above the stage was faultless and for those people who preferred to read the captions up close or who were visually impaired, they were seated next to the stage and given hand-held tablets to read the captions from their own devices.

But what I was really amazed at was that throughout the performance, some of the actors were signing in BSL. This was different to anything I had ever seen before on the stage because they were not just interpreting it in BSL for the other actors, but it was immersed into the performance as a fundamental part of telling the story. Loren Jacobs, who played Peter Pan’s Shadow and Georgina Jacobs, who played Tinkerbell the fairy, signed on the stage most of the time. As I watched them signing, I found it incredible that they could to this as well as act in their characters. They signed so clearly, in a very beautiful way.

Peter Pan + Tinkerbell

It seemed to add a whole new dimension to the performance, which was captivating and very visual. It also meant that it was inclusive for all deaf people, not just those who can read English well and follow the captions.

Afterwards, as I was in the bar chatting to my friends, I discovered a bit more about the Chickenshed, their ethos and values. One of my friends very kindly gave me a book about them as a present, which has recently been published to celebrate the fortieth year since the company was founded.

Through my friends and the book I found out that the Chickenshed was founded in 1974 by Jo Collins and Mary Ward. In those early days they literally met for rehearsals in a chicken shed on a farm owned by a local landowner and big fan of theirs. Since these humble beginnings, the company has expanded a lot until now it has over 800 members, and a waiting list twice that long. They moved into their new purpose-built theatre in 1994, where they have been ever since.

Peter Pan_Hook

They also have 260 regular volunteers and admin staff working there. They run educational and outreach programmes across the country, including offering a BA degree in Inclusive Performance in partnership with Middlesex University, as well as having 9 satellite ‘Sheds’ around the country and 2 in Russia.

The thing that has really impressed me about the Chickenshed more than anything is its inclusive ethos. Over the years they have worked with hundreds of people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Their ethos is about not labelling anyone, and bringing out the creative potential within everyone. This feeling of being valued and part of a family brings out the best in people and it has changed many people’s lives.

I thought it was wonderful that night to see the stage full of children of all ages and abilities. Everyone was included. In some of the pirate scenes with Captain Hook, there didn’t seem to be an inch spare on the stage as it was packed with children looking like punk pirates in their costumes, jumping around the stage energetically in their excitement and enthusiasm. They seemed to be having such a great time.

Peter Pan_children

The Chickenshed goes to great lengths to make sure that their performances are as inclusive and accessible to everyone as possible. My friend Sarah explained the process of how they went about interpreting the script of ‘Peter Pan’ into BSL and integrating it into the performance. It is a painstaking process, which takes many months of preparation beforehand and working closely with the actors to allow the characters to shine on stage through their signing. They work very hard to ensure that through the actors’ signing, the right mood, intensity and emotions are evoked, as well as making sure the signing is clear, concise and accurate. I found it totally amazing to watch and I surprised myself that I could follow it.

My friends and I all thought that this production of ‘Peter Pan’ was really fun to watch. I loved seeing the actor who played Peter Pan flying around the stage with Tinkerbell, Wendy and the other characters, and I thought all the acting and singing was brilliant.

I also really enjoyed watching Joseph Morton, who played Captain Hook, acting in such a dramatic, villainous manner. He was brilliant. I am really looking forward to my next visit to see another wonderful, inclusive performance by the Chickenshed. I’m hooked!

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Charlie & the Chocolate Factory: a deliciously dark treat!

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I have very vivid memories as a child watching the original ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ film made in 1971. I watched it with my family on TV every Christmas and I loved it. Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka struck me as a fantastically charismatic but strangely dark, sinister character, while Charlie Bucket and his Grandpa Joe seemed to have a great time on their adventure together. This film was so colourful, creative and weird. It was like a magical childhood fantasy.

Many years later, I was working for a company, which hired out two-way radios. I sometimes used to go to deliver the radios to film sets, where they were often used on big productions. I remember going to Pinewood’s 007 set, where they were doing the 2005 remake of the film called ‘Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’, starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. This was a Tim Burton production and when I arrived on the set, I was amazed at how lavish, creative and surreal the set design was. The scale of it all was epic.

Charlie Choc_Pinewood set
The set was not computer generated like most of them are now, so everything had been created and made from scratch. It was amazing. I remember having to replace some of the radios, as they had fallen into the giant running chocolate waterfall on the set, and were covered in a gooey, chocolate-brown substance.

When I saw recently that there was to be a captioned performance of the West End musical production of ‘Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I jumped at the chance to see it. Perhaps I am still a big kid at heart, but I was really excited about it. I asked some of my friends on social media if they wanted to come along with my wife and I, so a group of us ended up going to see the matinee performance together last Wednesday.

Charlie Choc_group
This big West End production is being directed by the Hollywood Director Sam Mendes, who has directed two of my favourite films, ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Skyfall’, the James Bond film. I knew it would be a lavish stage production with very imaginative, visually creative sets.

One of my friends, Adhiti, has only recently had her new cochlear implant switched on after her operation, and she was very excited to see this musical. She had never seen a captioned performance before and was curious to find out what it would be like and what the music would sound like with her new cochlear implant.

We had really good seats in the Royal Circle, with excellent views of the two STAGETEXT caption units at both sides of the stage. It was really busy for a matinee performance as there were lots of school parties there, as well as lots of tourists.

Right from the start, the stage sets were awesome and on an epic scale. Visually, they were stunning, as they were very creative and inventive. It was just like a magical fantasy world. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lavish sets like it on the stage before. In the first half, we saw a lot of touching scenes of Charlie, with his parents and grandparents, who were desperately poor, but had immense pride, honesty and dignity. This was hugely contrasted with the scenes showing TV interviews with the four other Golden Ticket prizewinners, who were all either grotesque, fat, immensely spoilt and brattish or subversive.

These scenes were brilliant and very surreal. The stage was designed like you were looking inside a giant TV. One of my favourites was the interview with the hugely brattish girl Veruca Salt and her father, Mr Salt, the peanut millionaire. He reminded me of ‘Swiss Toni’, the spivvy fictional used car salesman character from the Fast Show.

Charlie Choc_Swiss Toni
Also, I loved the interview scene with the subversive ‘techno terrorist’ kid Mike Teavee and his ‘Stepford wife’ mother Mrs Teavee, who was dressed as a 1950s housewife, but who was drinking ‘mummy water’ to calm her shot nerves because of her son. It was brilliant.

The second half was set mainly inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but the stage sets changed constantly, mixing real sets with huge projected images, showing the different operational parts and engine rooms of the factory. The scene showing the garden made of edible sweets with the running chocolate fountain looked amazing. It was a very magical scene with beautiful flowers and brightly coloured sweets and lollipops.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
All of the scenes were visually stunning and true to my memories of the original film. In one scene there was a row of puppet squirrels in a production line testing out nuts and setting off a red alarm flashing a warning of “Bad nut!”. The scene became hilarious when Veruca Salt decided that she wanted one of the squirrels as her own and rushed to grab one, only to find her father and herself going down the bad nut chute.

Alex Jennings, who played Willy Wonka, managed to capture the mixture of crazy, colourful, enigmatic genius in this character with his dark, weird side, brilliantly. The way he showed no remorse or compassion towards the other four children dispatched rather bizarrely along the way, showed his really sinister side. But at the end of the day, this story is a morality tale, with Wonka ending up leaving his beloved chocolate factory to the most deserving and humble child, Charlie.

We all really enjoyed watching this show and found it amazing. Adhiti told me that she had really loved it and that she had had “the best day”. I saw on Twitter that there had been another captioned performance that evening, with a large group of deaf people enjoying themselves watching it.

It goes to show that deaf and hard of hearing people love watching captioned musicals. I only wish that there were more of them, as they are usually restricted to one or two shows per theatre out of the whole season and there are several shows that I still want to see which aren’t being captioned at all. The runs of these big productions are really long, so come on theatre groups! Why don’t you make your musicals more accessible, so more deaf and hard of hearing people can enjoy a great night out?

Charlie Choc_last pic

An inclusive event for all deaf people at the Wallace Collection

Wallace Collection blog_header
I was delighted to attend a fantastic event at the Wallace Collection last Saturday. It was to celebrate the opening of the new Great Gallery there, which has recently re-opened after a two-year refurbishment programme. It was a special evening access event for deaf and hard of hearing people, which was made fully inclusive to all via total communication support in the form of professional lipspeaking, BSL and SSE interpreters.

When I first heard about this event I was immediately interested in attending because it would be the first organised event for deaf people that I had seen that didn’t just cater for one section of the deaf and hard of hearing community in terms of the communication support provided. This event was for the full spectrum of the deaf community.

Wallace Collection blog_lipspeakersI was amazed to see so many people there, and such a diversity of people, from cochlear implant users like myself, to deaf BSL users, deafened and hard of hearing people. I met up with several of my deaf friends and people I know from the various deaf groups and charities I am involved with. This was the first time I had seen them all together at the same venue. I also met some new people that evening, and there were people from all age groups.

The Great Gallery is the “jewel in the crown” of the Wallace Collection and runs the entire length of the city block in Central London. As I stood there and gazed around me, I was struck by how beautiful it is. It is truly stunning and it takes your breath away. With its red silk walls covered in Old Master paintings in opulent gold frames, I felt like I was standing inside one of the Royal Palaces.

Lucy Davies, the curator at the Wallace Collection, started out by describing the refurbishment programme of the Great Gallery, which was a huge project lasting two years, and how excited they were to re-open it recently. It was originally built by the founder of the Wallace Collection, Sir Richard Wallace, in 1870. It was intended as a picture gallery in Hertford House to amaze visitors by showing off his best paintings and furniture.

Wallace Collection_great gallery
During the recent refurbishment programme, they rebuilt the ceiling and introduced natural lighting through it, which is how it was originally intended to be. This gallery is special and different from other museums as it displays masterpieces from all over Europe in one space, and it is not divided into many national schools. Most of the paintings in the gallery are European paintings dating back to the 17th Century, which the Marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace collected in the 19th Century.

After Lucy’s talk, there was a series of talks to the group by four different deaf or hard of hearing lecturers and art experts, with each person talking about one of their favourite paintings or artefacts in the Great Gallery, with fascinating stories about the background of each one and its connection with the Hertford and Wallace families.

One of my favourite talks was a BSL talk by John Wilson, about a large painting of King George IV done in 1822 by the artist Thomas Lawrence in the Great Gallery. The artist’s life and career were quite closely connected to the subject, and the original owner of this painting, the third Marquess of Hertford, was a former ambassador to Berlin and Vienna and also Master of the Horse to George IV.

At the time of the painting King George IV was 61 years old and he weighed 21½ stones. He is wearing a chestnut wig in the portrait and he liked to be painted by Thomas Lawrence as he painted him in a very flattering light.

Wallace Collection blog_George IVWith two failed marriages behind him before he became king, Prince George began a relationship with Lady Hertford, who later became his mistress when she was a very large 50-year old woman, and he was 45 years old. He used to visit her every afternoon at Hertford House (the present Wallace Collection museum).

In 1820 the Prince Regent became King George IV and he replaced Lady Hertford with Lady Conyngham, an obese 52-year old woman. The painting of King George was given to Lady Conyngham and it was later acquired by Sir Richard Wallace to be displayed in Hertford House.

I was fascinated to learn that one of Thomas Lawrence’s pupils and assistants, Samuel Lane, was profoundly deaf and he lived with Lawrence in his house in Soho. When Lawrence died he left all his paintings to Lane, who finished off many of them. Sadly, Lane never achieved the recognition as a great portrait painter that Lawrence achieved in his lifetime.

The other talk, which I particularly enjoyed, was Edward Richard’s talk in BSL. I can hear much better now that I have my cochlear implant, but since I became deafened four years ago, I have become much more visual. Edward signed beautifully in a very visual, descriptive way, but since I am not fluent at all, it really helped me to watch Edward signing and listen to his BSL interpreter too. This added a whole new dimension for me.

Edward talked about two of the gilded bronze sculptures on the table at the back of the Great Gallery. They were sculpted by Pietro Tacca and his son Ferdinando in Florence in c.1640-50 and were commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’Medici, who was from a very wealthy Italian dynasty.

Wallace Collection_Hercules

The models in the Wallace Collection were based on two classical Greek myths about Hercules, the Greek god. One of them shows Hercules battling with a centaur (a half man, half horse creature), who had angered him by being engaged to his lover, Deianeira, who later became his second wife and then killed him. The other one shows Hercules in a struggle with the river god Achelous, another rival for the hand of his beloved Deianeira.

Ferdinando Tacca, Pietro’s son, was also an engineer, architect and stage designer in Florence. Edward described in a very visual way how we can see the influence of theatrical design in the sculptures in the very dramatic facial features and depiction of Hercules wrestling the centaur to the ground and the contortions of the centaur’s body.

Both sculptures were bought by the 3rd Marquess of Hertford and first recorded in Dorchester House (which later became the Dorchester Hotel) in 1842.

After the talks, the Wallace Collection provided free glasses of wine for us all in the courtyard restaurant where we all had a good chat in a beautiful location. It was great to see such a diversity of deaf and hard of hearing people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying themselves.

I would like to thank Edwina, Lucy and the rest of the Wallace Collection staff for organising such a great accessible event. I hope there will be more of these events, which bring deaf people together, are informative and interesting, as well as being really good fun. Well done to the Wallace Collection!

With thanks to Michael Theobald too for providing me with the photos.