My title for this blog comes from a speech by George Asprey at the start of a performance of The Lion King on 14 April 2013 in London. Fans of the show will know that the actor portraying Scar doesn’t usually give a speech prior to the opening number, but this performance was special. This particular performance had an audience of people on the autistic spectrum; a mother shared her account of their trip and it’s very touching.
I’d like to share my experience of attending a musical with someone who has special needs, as it can be easy for us to forget how hard a theatre trip can be for some people. My eldest sister (R) has Downs Syndrome and autism, so I know how challenging a simple trip outside the house can be for someone who doesn’t like loud noises or new people. Often a trip to a theatre, where we’re taught to be quiet but we’re then blasted with loud music, can be a scary place for someone with autism.
Last year, our other sister and I took R to see the touring production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; luckily we had grown up with the Donny Osmond video and my sister had seen it before on stage. It’s perhaps the only time I’ve been glad a show hasn’t changed through its various tours, as seeing the same show on stage as on video really helped my sister. Due to the autism, R shouted at innocent by-standers to get out of her way and told them to go away – you would too if you were only 4 foot 7 and surrounded by very tall people in a small space. The whole trip was planned like a military mission, right down to bringing our own teaspoon to eat the ice cream with in the interval, as those spatulas are hard to use even when you have good co-ordination.
However once the show started my sister lit up with the spectacle of it all and hearing the songs we’ve grown up singing. As with any young woman, R was also extremely interested in the half naked men and kept craning her head to get a better look. She was very taken with Keith Jack as Joseph, to the point that at the start of Act 2 when the narrator and children were singing, she turned and asked me where Joseph was. It was a very funny moment as her speech is very limited, but she pushed through and found the words because she so wanted to hear and see Keith again. The way her face was nearly bursting with happiness during the finale made up for any bad moments, and I can’t thank the cast enough as they kept trying to engage with her by waving and singing to her.
Of course what is staggering, is that it wasn’t even an autism friendly performance, so I can only imagine the happiness felt by the families at The Lion King who were catered for as they were. I hope other West End shows and tours have plans to follow in the same way.