Focusing on the young people and families of an award-winning UK theatre group for people with additional needs called Drama Express, as they create a performance to premiere at Cornwall’s iconic Minack Theatre. This is Robin Toyne’s documentary It’s Okay To Be Different.
Thanks to the hundreds of streaming services that are now available at the touch of a button, it is easy to sit back and watch anything you want to. Whereas before, movies and TV shows became major talking points at work or at school, the past few years have seen an increase in the number of documentaries such as Get Back, Tiger King, and the Last Dance that have become cultural milestones, memes, and conversation starters. With this in mind, it is quite possible that today’s era in documentary filmmaking is the boom time for the genre, but while these shows are some of the most famous, there are many more documentaries that fly under the radar and these can sometimes be much more worthy of your time, and far more rewarding.
One such documentary is the magical It’s Okay To Be Different directed by Robin Toyne. It centres on the young people and families of Drama Express – an award-winning UK theatre group for young people with special educational needs. It’s Okay To Be Different follows the exploits of its members, their parents, and the volunteers as they all work together to create a live performance to premiere in front of an audience at the Minack outdoor theatre in Cornwall.
Filmed in the usual documentary style with talking head interviews and exterior shots of the group in action, the documentary opens at the group’s ‘Oscar’ award ceremony – an opportunity to get dressed up, meet with their friends, and celebrate the work they have all done over the past year. We meet a couple of the group’s performers, the most vocal being Amelia, Lydia, Charlotte, Ruby, Jimmy, and William, along with their parents. We also meet the real hero of the piece, Drama Express’ creative director Simon Allison – a man who has created a safe and secure environment full of enthusiasm and laughter for children with special needs to embrace, socialise, and perform in. Also involved is the wonderful Morwenna Banks who is the narrator of the documentary. Known to the nation as Mummy Pig in Peppa Pig, a fact that is sweetly acknowledged by one of the children early on, Banks is also a patron of Drama Express, and not only is her voice work here exceptional there is a genuine love and warmth that envelops every syllable she utters.
There are some truly heart-warming moments to be had with It’s Okay To Be Different, whether that be the parents telling us how they have seen their children blossom, gaining a confidence and self-respect they never thought was possible, to the children showing their natural reactions and behaviours. Moments like Jimmy, without any kind of prompt, telling his mum he loves her to a genuinely jaw-dropping moment later on that sees Ruby singing an acoustic version of Zombie by The Cranberries. All of this is affectionately caught through the lens of director Toyne’s camera as she focuses on the goodness that permeates through every scene. There is rarely any stillness, even during the lockdown periods; Toyne concentrates on keeping things moving. There is always something to look at, some piece of advice worth listening to, or some reaction to cherish and, because of this, the 60 minutes fly by.
The main positive about It’s Okay To Be Different is that it challenges the perceptions of disability – always telling us what can be achieved rather than what can’t. It is both an argument for acceptance and an exploration of the challenges of living with additional needs. A record of the drive and determination of an extraordinary and inspirational group, It’s Okay To be Different is a documentary that is worth far more of your time than the 60 minutes it takes to watch it.