I have a lifelong love of theatre – my memories date back to seeing Des O’Connor as Buttons in Cinderella some time in the early 1960s. As a grown-up I’ve been delighted to share my enthusiasm for theatre with my two children and now my seven-year-old grandson.

But for some families, a trip to the theatre is less magic and more mayhem. Children with a wide variety of issues can struggle with the things other people love – flashing lights, bangs, sudden movements and just being in the dark. But the good fairy has waved her magic wand and pantomimes this Christmas – and other productions throughout the year – now offer relaxed performances as well as British Sign Language-interpreted and audio described shows.

‘Relaxed performances come from a place of saying that theatre is not the exclusive right of a certain kind of person,’ says Kelly Johnson of Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. ‘We want to welcome as many people as possible. Lots of different needs benefit from a relaxed atmosphere.

‘For relaxed performances the theatre is not completely dark. Sound and lighting are adjusted and there are no sudden noises. We make sure the doors are left open so it’s not a big deal if anyone wants to leave – it’s absolutely fine to go in or out. We offer ear defenders and we are looking to develop with a break-out room and some sensory toys. It’s all about breaking down the pressure.

Great British Life: There were access performances of Sleeping Beauty with Shane Ritchie at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last Christmas. Photo: Steve TannerThere were access performances of Sleeping Beauty with Shane Ritchie at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last Christmas. Photo: Steve Tanner

‘There might be an introduction to the characters on stage for the audience and an indication of what to expect. Those who come are so grateful. It’s awful when people feel uncomfortable – there’s nothing worse than thinking everyone’s eyes are on you.

‘There’s a big drive in the industry to do this. We need to go above and beyond and do better to make people feel welcome. We even had a discussion about props when we had our first production meeting for our panto, Dick Whittington.’

The Theatre Royal Plymouth is the region’s largest theatre – the main auditorium The Lyric can seat 1,300 people – but it’s the personal touch that makes a difference. The focus is on making the experience as inclusive as possible and the journey for visitors starts before they get to the theatre says front of house manager Sarah Earley.

‘People can go online and see a video of what to expect before they get here. We had one wheelchair user who came up to me to say thank you for being able to use the same entrance as everyone else. In older theatres they can often end up heading round the back for an accessible entrance.

‘It’s not always about obvious accessible needs. We had a touch tour for a performance of Frantic Assembly’s Metamorphosis when a class of children with complex issues came to see the set before the show. Our access performances are evolving all the time. One girl told me it was lovely that the doors didn’t shut because when they did that made her panic.

Great British Life: There were relaxed performances of Madagascar at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Photo: Mark DawsonThere were relaxed performances of Madagascar at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Photo: Mark Dawson

‘We have a few parents who bring young children to relaxed performances because it’s a great way to introduce little ones to the theatre. We now have access performances for lots of shows – Madagascar is our co-production so we were able to do that – and last year’s Aladdin panto was a success. If people do have to leave there’s a chill out space with a screen so they don’t have to miss any of the show.

‘There aren’t many shows now that don’t have one or two accessible performances and staff have learned some useful BSL phrases like welcome, please, thank you and the sign for toilets! One sign can make a visitor’s day.

‘I love working on the relaxed performances. There’s a lovely atmosphere and it’s so nice to welcome everyone to the theatre.’

Kelly Johnson at the Northcott says theatre is really about bringing people together. ‘It’s about connections. We are all sharing the experience together. We can make access a priority, rather than an afterthought.’


Exeter Northcott has relaxed performances of Dick Whittington on January 6, audio described on December 10 and BSL on December 14. exeternorthcott.co.uk

At the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter, Dear Santa has a BSL signed performance on December 16 and a relaxed show the following day. exeternorthcott.co.uk

Sleeping Beauty at Exeter Corn Exchange has a relaxed performance on December 29. exetercornexchange.co.uk

Goldilocks and The Three Bears at the Theatre Royal Plymouth has audio described shows on December 28 and January 4, captioned on December 29 and January 5, BSL on December 29 and relaxed on January 11.

Father Christmas in The Drum has a relaxed/BSL/audio described show on December 5, captioned performance on December 9, relaxed on December 10 and BSL December 16, preceded by a touch tour. All theatreroyal.com.

Beauty and the Beast at the Princess Theatre, Torquay, has a relaxed performance on December 19. atgtickets.com

Five Children and It at Exeter Phoenix has a relaxed performance on December 17 and BSL on December 21 exeterphoenix.org.uk

Sleeping Beauty at the Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple, has a BSL show on December 20 and a relaxed performance on December 28. queenstheatre-barnstaple.com

READ MORE: Christmas shows and pantos in and around Devon 2023