Hope Mill Theatre.
Commissioned by Contact.
13 December 2018.
When children head into the woods in traditional fairy stories and pantomimes they often find themselves lost in a dark and scary place. Contact’s Christmas show is having none of that. We’re led into the Forest of Forgotten Discos by friendly and sparkly ‘virtual assistant’ Alexa, where we meet Red, a super-confident 9-year-old who has run away from home. If she is nervous about hiding out in woodland and being away from her family she doesn’t show it. Nor does she perceive the big bears who inhabit the space as a threat – in fact they’re wary of humans and initially scared of Red.
Writer Jackie Hagan’s specially created show eschews the usual festive fare in favour of a story that revolves around a glitter ball that’s stopped revolving and the misplaced ‘spirit of disco’. Alexa, Red and the bears join forces on a quest to get everyone dancing again – or in this case, waving their hands in the air “like a boogie bear”.
At this time of the year, a mission such as this inevitably requires help from the audience as well. So we learn how to do ‘bear paws’, invoke the power of disco, get ‘sprinkled’ and there’s a chance to have a go at sprout-catching. Participation is thoughtfully incorporated, and the space itself made cosy and welcoming. It’s refreshingly intimate, no one is far from the stage and children can get comfortable (and close to the action) on clusters of cushions while grown-ups can retreat to two rows of seating behind them.
Hagan is a consistent champion of the marginalised in her work and her three bears (all puntastically named) are revealed to be toys that have found shelter in the forest after being discarded, lost or neglected. Their threadbare and patched-up exteriors conceal various vulnerabilities and a simple desire to be loved.
The bears scavenge their food from picnic leftovers, and their habitat is thoughtfully decorated with the litter carelessly dropped by humans. Designer Katharine Heath ingeniously creates a magical make-do-and-mend woodland world. While the forest floor is an actual carpet of green, it’s surrounded by a visually delightful mishmash of colour and pattern – with trees clad in gingham, dots and yarn-bombing, and carefully sorted collections of lost toys dangling from their branches. The bears’ individual caves reflect their personalities with empty bean cans piled up outside the home of the fabulously flatulent Bear Hugs, and a big Magic Tree air freshener has pride of place in cleanliness-obsessed Bear Minimum’s abode. Heath’s designs are bursting with so much beautifully curated detail it’s tempting to linger after the show to explore them further.
I’m in danger of making this sound more serious than it is aiming to be, and while there is the odd bit of quirky detail to enjoy as an adult – the special shower of silver sprinkles for those who’ve been to Bury Market, Alexa’s Etch A Sketch name badge and a cheeky dig at Nigella Lawson – this is ultimately crafted for its much younger target audience.
Noticeably there’s no attempt to squeeze in any risqué jokes or double-entendres, with laughter generated by good-natured foolishness and ever-popular toilet humour. On the night I was there, the phrase “bum dot” went down a storm…
Director Nickie Miles-Wildin has worked hard to make the show accessible. Sign language is fully integrated, and the incorporation of visual story-telling ensures Bear Hug’s frequent ‘parps’ can be enjoyed by everyone.
The cast are genuinely endearing (in particular, Ali Briggs as Bear Minimum seems to be having the time of her life), the storyline is engaging but light, and at about an hour in length the show caters for short attention spans. Spoiler alert – it all ends well and everyone learns some helpful lessons about the nature of family, acceptance of others… and the power of a spinning glitter ball!
Jackie Hagan’s Forest of Forgotten Discos manages to carve out a space, to gently reflect on those too often pushed aside, within a parp-powered, disco-loving, bear-hugging celebration of friendship. Not many shows would end with a reminder to “carry on signing, and always respect a human or a bear that wears a tabard” – but in the context of what’s gone before it’s a fitting thought to take away as Alexa engages her DJ mode and the audience bear boogie out of the theatre.
Photos by Lee Baxter.
Illustration by Laura Skilbeck.