Chronic Illness Friendly: 5/5 (Relaxed Performance) – keep scrolling for my chronic illness friendly review!
Like most people of my generation, I grew up listening to Abba’s music: so many of their iconic songs have been ingrained into my childhood and feature prominently across my earliest memories. In fact, one of my first recollections of learning to dance was listening to Abba during modern class in a humble little church hall, wearing a bright orange sequinned leotard and learning to do stag leaps and high kicks to Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!; another involves six year old Pippa kneeling on a stage belting out ‘Thank You For The Music’ whilst, for reasons unbeknownst to me, dressed as an alien. Don’t hate me cos you ain’t me.
Whilst Mamma Mia has never really been at the top of my must-see musical list, I was so looking forward to experiencing those timeless songs that we all know and love being performed live on stage. Set on an idyllic Greek island, the bulk of the story is set over two days, following protagonist Donna, as her daughter Sophie prepares for her wedding day. Having never known who her father was, Sophie desperately tries, by process of elimination, to find the father figure who’s been missing from her life in time for him to walk her down the aisle. Whilst the story is very straight-forward, with perhaps not a great deal of depth to either the plot or the characters, it’s a sweet and uplifting tale of moving on from the past and treasuring the people you love.
For me, Helen Hobson’s performance as Donna Sheridan was a real highlight of the show: her insightful portrayal of a mother almost trapped in her own need for independence led to several moments that gave an unexpected tug on your heartstrings. In stark contrast, I also enjoyed Louis Stockil’s youthful and exuberant performance as Pepper, which incorporated frequent light and humorous touches to the story. The production also features a strong ensemble: whilst the choreography wasn’t really up my street, I loved that the entire cast were evidently trained dancers who fully committed to their roles. My eyes were repeatedly drawn to ensemble member Erica-Jayne Alden in particular, a talented dancer with a fabulous stage presence.
The show also boasts a brilliant Creative Team, under Judy Cramer’s production: the set, lighting and costuming all reflected an upbeat and joyful mood throughout, enhancing the tale and taking the audience away from what quite frankly has been a rather wet and miserable March, here up north. Two hours in the theatre and it took genuine self-restraint not to hop on the next flight to the Mediterranean.
Now, can we talk about the music? Drawn straight from legends Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, it’s the songs and musical numbers that really make this show a stand-out in its own right. The entire production is (rightly) crafted around enthused performances of Abba’s greatest hits, and every single time the familiar opening notes to each song began, you could almost sense a collective pricking-up-of-the-ears from the audience. There were multiple points in the show where I thought the two lovely ladies next to me were going to physically harm one another from the amount of excited nudging happening at the start of each song.
Audience participation was also actively encouraged during several parts of the show, and the cast did a great job of engaging with the audience and inviting them to join in. The lively medley of Abba songs that formed the finale had everybody on their feet, throwing all the shapes that one possibly can in a confined space surrounded by strangers, and concluded the performance in such a way that there wasn’t a single person exiting the theatre who didn’t have a huge smile on their face.
After experiencing Mamma Mia for myself, I can understand why this show is loved and treasured by so many. Whilst it probably isn’t one that I’ll be rushing to see again, I firmly believe that it serves its purpose as a fun and uplifting tribute to the musicians and medleys that have touched the lives of so many, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Chronic Illness Friendly Review
Since this was my first time seeing a relaxed performance, I’m breaking away from my usual format for this part of the review, and instead I’d like to talk about my experience of a Relaxed Performance, as somebody with a chronic illness. If you’re looking for an access review of Sheffield Theatres, bear with me: there’s a new post coming soon entirely dedicated to this. In the meantime, there’s some great accessibility information for the theatre online, and you can also contact the Box Office with any access queries or requirements on 0114 249 6000.
It’s recently come to my attention that a lot of people don’t fully understand what a Relaxed Performance is. To summarise, these performances are specially adapted for those who may struggle with a ‘typical’ theatre experience. The shows are effectively yet discreetly altered to make the experience less overwhelming and more comfortable for those sensitive to external stimuli, and the entire experience of watching the show is more laid-back, with less regard given to traditional theatre etiquette. Therefore, these shows are particularly suitable for those with sensory processing or communication disorders, such as people with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) or those with learning disabilities, but they’re not exclusively for these audience members: anyone is welcome to come.
Adequate preparation is a key part of successfully pulling off a performance like this, and it was great to see that Front Of House staff were informed, considerate and going out of their way not only to help people, but to chat with them and ensure that their experience was the best it could be. I later found out that there was even a chill-out area set up in the auditorium for those who may benefit from going and taking some time out during the show- I reckon something like this could come in really handy for those affected by chronic illness, too.
I knew beforehand that elements of the show were going to be adapted for the occasion, but I wasn’t sure exactly where these changes would be made. I was making a point of looking for instances where I thought things had been altered, however I genuinely couldn’t spot any myself: the adaptations made were so subtle that they didn’t take anything away from the performance. The only thing that marked this occasion as something different from usual proceedings was the pre-show announcement that was made. Helen Hobson, whose praises I’ve already sung above, entered the stage and spoke directly to the audience about how this was to be a Relaxed Performance, and what that would entail. It was warm and genuine, and a great way to welcome the individuals in the audience who may not necessarily be regular theatregoers.
SO, what was different about the actual performance? I had a chat with Sheffield Theatres Access Supervisor and my new pal Paul Whitley about the process of working with the Mamma Mia production team to modify the show, and how what I had watched differed from the other performances during their UK tour. I found out firstly that the sound and audio dynamics were adjusted by the crew, meaning that the overall volume and acoustics of the show were more appropriate for those with noise sensitivity. I also found out that not only were the lighting effects of the ‘flashier’ musical numbers reduced, the house lights in the theatre were never fully dimmed, meaning that audience members had better visibility of their environment and the people around them.
Whilst perhaps not traditionally intended for those with chronic illnesses, I definitely benefitted from this Relaxed Performance in ways I wouldn’t necessarily have expected. As somebody with a really inconvenient hypersensitivity to noise and light, watching musicals usually does have an adverse effect on my symptoms and leave me struggling afterwards. However, thanks to the adapted effects used in this performance, I left the theatre after this performance in much better shape than I was anticipating.
Above all though, it was so uplifting to sit in a theatre surrounded by people having the time of their life, people for whom coming to see a show might be a once in a blue moon treat. Yes, there was some disruption throughout the performance, people moving and talking and running around, but you cannot deny that the atmosphere throughout the show was one of mutual enjoyment and respect for other audience members. I saw very few people feeling the need to tut or look around to stare judgingly when a disturbance occurred, and instead witnessed multiple others going out of their way to smile or say a kind word to somebody else. Heck, if you’re one of ~those~ people who still need convincing that inclusive theatre is the way forward, you need to go and sit yourself down during a Relaxed Performance and take a good look around you. Without sounding too cheesy, seeing these people really having a good time and enjoying themselves made me personally enjoy myself even more.
So, if you haven’t already guessed, my first experience of a Relaxed Performance was a good ’un. Now that I have a better understanding of how these shows come about, I’d like to congratulate Sheffield Theatres’ fabulous access team and the Mamma Mia cast and crew on an undeniably successful performance, and I hope to see many more of them in the future. Theatre is magical, but even more so when the magic can be shared among everybody.
Have you been to a Relaxed Performance before, and if so, how did you find it? What shows would you like to see incorporate more Relaxed Performances in the future?
Photo Credits: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (Mamma Mia UK Tour)