Clubbing together

This Wednesday, around 400 people will flock to The Beautiful Octopus Club. All of their events are packed out with revellers who come from across the capital to hook into this growing underground scene.

In addition to live musical performances, Internet access and chill- out zones, the club is also excellent value for money. It offers a heady mixture of house anthems, spanning everything from speed garage to handbag classics. And, as well as providing an excellent night out, The Beautiful Octopus Club's primary aim is to celebrate the culture of people with learning disabilities.

"Everyone is welcome at the club, and there's truly an amazing atmosphere," says Mark Williams, director of Heart'nSoul, which organises the events. "The overall spirit of freedom is everywhere, it's just a fantastic party vibe."

Heart'nSoul began as a performance company 11 years ago, to raise awareness of disability arts. Their work centres on how people with learning disabilities view the world and their experiences of life.

The Beautiful Octopus Club is a response to the sort of reaction and discrimination that people with learning disabilities face when they try to get into a mainstream club. Despite years of stereotyping, attitudes are beginning to change.

"Things are changing at a huge rate and that's a measure of how society is changing. Many of the clubs and hospitals that used to provide long- term accommodation for people with disabilities are no longer there, and these people are, to a degree, in the community now," Williams explains.

The Heart'nSoul company organised events as a hobby until their success gave them the chance to go on weekly tours to Germany, among other places.

Patrons of The Beautiful Octopus Club range in age from 16-40-plus, and disabled DJs spin the latest tunes. Age is definitely not a barrier to having fun here.

"Some people do a massive double-take when they visit the club, and then the second shock they get is when they find that they're actually enjoying it. It's very innovative, creative and accessible."

In addition to the latest dance sounds, the Heart'nSoul team provide performance slots, which can be dance pieces, music theatre or live bands, and there's also Internet access and Heart'nSoul's own website so that technology and ideas can be shared.

"We've had lottery funding for a two-year development plan. We're going to spread the tentacles of the Octopus across London and we're going to be working with several venues," says Williams.

There are plans for an under-18 branch of The Octopus Club, called Squidz, and ideas for other one-off events like a mini-Glastonbury-style Octopus Club night. While still in the early stages, demand for these sorts of events is high, and venues holding 400 people are insufficient.

"We'd welcome more joint ventures with mainstream clubs; somewhere like the Ministry of Sound would be great, as would anything that encourages people to have fun and integrate."

A conversation with any of the Heart'nSoul cast quickly reveals the how much the entertainments matter to members.

"We take our shows around the world," says company member, Geoffrey Goodall. "I find it moving, groovy, relaxing and exciting. It's good to show what we can do, we're not just a bunch of nobodies, we've got something to say."

Fellow performer, Sarah Stevens agrees. "After the shows, people come and talk to us and that really makes me happy. It makes me feel more powerful."

The Beautiful Octopus Club, Albany Theatre, Douglas Way, London SE8 (0181-692 4446) Wed 8 Apr, 7pm- mdn't, pounds 4/pounds 3 concs.


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