The Twelve Days of Christmas at the Chickenshed: a magical, inclusive adventure

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I never imagined that the Twelve Days of Christmas carol could take on a whole new meaning until I saw the Chickenshed theatre company’s performance of it in North London last week.

I went with a group of friends to the Chickenshed to see this captioned and BSL interpreted Christmas play. The storyline focuses on four children’s quest to find the fifth gold ring in the Twelve Days of Christmas carol, and during their journey, they come across all the characters from the carol in various scenes, such as two turtle doves and three French hens, in a crazy Alice in Wonderland type of adventure.

The performance was so colourful and surreal that at times I felt like I was in the middle of a gigantic bizarre Acid trip. The sheer energy and powerful emotion shown by the actors on stage and their huge supporting cast was electrifying and thrilling to watch.

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The set was also highly creative and magical. It was designed like a giant Willy Wonka-type slot machine, with the different numbers for the Twelve Days of Christmas flashing up to let the audience know when we had reached a specific number from the Twelve Days of Christmas.

This was definitely a unique production with a twist. None of the characters in the carol were how I remembered them or imagined them to be. For instance, the two male French hens spoke English with a French accent and confessed that they couldn’t speak French. The ’eleven pipers piping’ were shown as eleven plumbers dressed in boiler suits fixing the pipes in someone’s bathroom while he sat in his bathtub. Hilarious!

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I loved the crazy singing and dancing too. In one scene there was a ‘Strictly Formation Dancing’ ballroom dancing contest going on where the contestants were all amateurs and none of them could dance very well, so it all looked messy and chaotic, but very funny. Other scenes had circus acrobats, beautiful singing and fast, energetic dancing as the cast threw themselves across the stage.

What the Chickenshed really excels in though and makes them truly unique, is their totally diverse and inclusive ethos, which came across in bucket-loads in this production. Careful planning and attention to detail ensures that everyone in the audience and cast are included and made to feel part of their unique community.

They have a cast of more than 800 people in four different rotas, which includes children and adults of all ages, disabilities and ethnic backgrounds. No-one is excluded. In some scenes I saw about a hundred children, teenagers and adults crammed onto the stage. They all looked like they were having a great time. It was brilliant to watch and feel part of it.

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As well as being captioned in-house by the excellent captioner Beverley, there were two BSL interpreters on stage the whole time, who integrated their signing fully into the performance and interacted with the actors to tell the story in an effortless, seamless way. Their signing was beautiful to watch and because it is such a visual language, it added something extra to the performance, as well as making it totally accessible to the deaf people in the audience.

The show built up to a fabulous, show-stopper of a finale involving all the members of the cast on stage singing and dancing along to the lyrics of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol. The Rayne theatre, which was packed that night, was rocking as the audience clapped along to the lyrics of the song with the cast. At the end the entire cast were signing the words ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’ and as I looked around me, I saw children and families in the audience copying them and signing the lyrics. It was a heartwarming experience.

As I left the theatre that night, I had the lyrics ‘And a partridge, a partridge, a partridge in a pear tree’ ringing in my ears. Like a constant earworm that refused to go away, I had that tune ringing in my ears for days afterwards. That carol will never sound the same again.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Shakespeare meets Two-Tone at the Chickenshed

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I recently went to see a brilliant, totally unique captioned performance of Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at the Chickenshed theatre in North London.

I’ve seen quite a few different productions of Shakespeare plays over the last couple of years, but this was unlike any other I’ve seen. It was set in the late 70s/early 80s period of Two-Tone British Ska music. The actors were dressed in black and white suits with porkpie hats and kept breaking into songs by The Specials and Madness, while hurling themselves frenetically and dancing across the stage.

Listening to the cast singing songs I knew well from when I was at school, such as ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ took me back to the days of cheesy school discos or spinning around in a fairground Waltzer car singing my heart out to the sound of the Ska music being played in the background. Happy days!

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As soon as we arrived in the studio theatre, we were met with the cast walking around the small stage in front of us, shouting and demonstrating, holding up placards and protesting really noisily. They were interacting with the audience and seemed really fired up. I knew we would be in for something totally different that evening.

The studio theatre itself is really small and intimate. Being “in the round” and only seating about 40-50 people, it meant that I could see the faces of the audience clearly. They all looked delighted and surprised at the liveliness and energy of the actors running around the stage in a very physical way as the plot unfolded before them. Both the audience and the actors looked like they were having a lot of fun.

The plot is all about mistaken identity and the chaos and hilarity that results from that. It is a light Shakespearian comedy with the plot centred on two sets of twins separated at birth, who people confuse for the other one, and just to make it even more confusing, they each have manservants, who are also twins.

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There is also a merchant who has come in search of his son, who’s looking for his brother and mother, who were both lost at sea many years ago. To cut a long story short, the whole town called Ephesus ends up mistaking each for the other, but it all gets resolved in the end when the two sets of twins become reunited and the merchant finds his sons.

I was really grateful for the captioning done by the STAGETEXT captioner Bev so that I could follow the dialogue. I was there with my wife and some deaf and hard of hearing friends. We had great seats for reading the captions, which were directly opposite us. Even though there was a good hearing loop there I needed to read the captions too, especially because the dialogue was in old Shakespearian English and also because some of the characters had strong Caribbean accents, which were difficult to follow.

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My wife told me that she was following the captions too, because even though she can hear, she would have struggled to understand the language without the captions. I think many people in the audience found them helpful too.

The very young cast all gave brilliant performances. There were some great moments, such as the scene when the rather feisty, cherubic-looking Luciana, played by Sarah Connolly, was talking to her sister Adriana, played by Tessa Ryan, while doing her aerobics routine dressed in a 1980s Jane Fonda style leotard, tights and leg warmers with the song ‘Fame’ blaring out in the background.

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I love the friendly, relaxed atmosphere and the inclusive ethos at the Chickenshed. They train and support children and adults of all abilities and backgrounds to get involved in their company and productions. They don’t turn anyone down to become a part of their theatre company, which is totally inclusive to all, regardless of their ability. They also have a lot of volunteers, who willingly give up their time to help out and be part of the whole experience.

I have some deaf friends, who have been involved in the Chickenshed since they were small children. They have grown up with it playing a big role in their lives. It is like being part of a large extended family, which welcomes them and offers them hope and encouragement in a friendly, warm environment. It is theatre, which changes people’s lives by giving them the confidence and tools they need to go out into the world and pursue their dreams without being afraid of rejection or discrimination.

I left the theatre that night with a big smile on my face against the sound of the cast singing “Enjoy yourself” by The Specials ringing in my ears. Even the ushers were singing along to the catchy tune. It was brilliant that they had made Shakespeare so fun and accessible to all through this lively, Two-Tone production. It makes me want to dig out my old Specials and Madness albums and start reliving the soundtrack of my youth!

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Peter Pan at the Chickenshed: a magical, inclusive adventure

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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