More the Forest of Forgotten Teddy Bears, I’d say, and just the place for a picnic. Nine year-old Red – an engaging Paislie Reid – thinks differently. She’s run away from home because her Dad’s got a new girlfriend and now she’s a bit lost. So it’s just as well that she runs into Alexa, a sort of robot that seems to know everything.

The Forest, a lovely soft fabric design by Katherine Heath that gives everything a cosy feel, is full of sleeping bears and Alexa, a rather good Sophie Coward whom I saw playing a similar role as Romeo’s bezzie Benvolio in Heaton Park last summer – she’s a dab hand with a rapier by the way –  thinks they will be able to help Red, but first they have to be woken. Fortunately she knows how to do this, with our help.

The first bear to wake is Bear Hugs, who has a connection with Red which I won’t spoil, and soon she is joined by Bear Grills (no expense was spared in the development of these names) and Bear Minimum. Together they help Red reconcile herself to her new situation, and everyone lives relatively happily ever after, but not before we’ve all had a jolly good dance. Did I say Sophie Coward could Floss like a dental hygienist?*

It’s a gentle piece – if I have a quibble it’s the lack of narrative tension – but it works perfectly for four-year-olds and up. There’s lots of participation; in fact sitting in the auditorium you feel like you’re inside the show, which is a neat trick.

Written by Jackie Hagan who describes herself as ‘a working class queer amputee’, and directed by Nickie Miles-Wildin who is resident assistant director at the Royal Exchange and also a disabled artist, the production is accessible in every respect. It is signed throughout by the actors themselves, which quickly becomes unnoticeable to a hearing audience, and is a considerable step on from the signer-in-the-corner. We need more of this.

Produced at Manchester’s Hope Mill, the show is a Contact Theatre commission. Contact has been many things in its time. Built as a theatre for the Manchester University Drama department, in 1969 it became the home of Theatre 69, the group of directors who went on to become the Royal Exchange, and in 1972 it was dedicated as a theatre for young audiences. Since then it has been the home of lots of talented, interesting directors like Anthony Clarke who went on to run Hampstead, and in a later incarnation John McGrath who now runs the Manchester International Festival.

Now Contact is evolving again, and is in the middle of building redevelopment. Meanwhile, it is producing work of different kinds on location all over the city, but it remains a place ‘where young people change their lives through the arts’. We need more of that, too. 

*The Floss is a dance move invented by a You-tuber called The Backpack Kid in 2016 and further popularised by online game Fortnite, which has reached the tipping point and is now part of popular culture. You’ve seen it, I know you have. Just be glad it’s not Baby Shark. That has a song as well as moves and you’ll be doing it until 2020 if you’re not careful.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

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