HANDS & Voices, Accessible Arts & Media’s singing and signing choir in York, celebrated their 20th birthday in style last weekend with a special cabaret show packed with original music, theatre, comedy and dance.

Cabaret Of Dreams was staged last Saturday at the Scenic Stage Theatre in the University of York's department of theatre, film and television, a new location and partnership for Hands & Voices, with matinee and evening performances at 2pm and 7pm.

Funny and poignant in turns, the show explored the choir members’ hopes and dreams for the future, while marking their 20 years together as Britain's first singing and signing choir.

"Supported by Arts Council England lottery funding and by financial services firm BGL Group, Cabaret Of Dreams is an inclusive production, co-devised by members of the cast, most of whom are adults with learning and communication difficulties and disabilities," says Accessible Arts & Media creative director Rose Kent.

"Hands & Voices shows are renowned for being very funny, delightfully random – you never know what’s coming next – and full of catchy numbers that’ll have you humming all the way home.

"We also use beautiful original choreography, co-devised by Amy Manancourt's Leeds company Creative Humans and members of the cast, and the show is a joyful celebration of the fact that we can all achieve incredible things when we work, play and celebrate together."

Rose recalls how the choir came into being. "Accessible Arts had done an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the York Museum Gardens with Kate Pearson as artistic director, and we were discussing with our signing advisor, Kathryn Wallace, who's a speech and language therapist, about how beautiful it was but how the musicians were positioned under a tree and didn't feel fully involved," she says.

"So, in conversations after that we realised that those with more challenging and communication needs could be brought to centre stage by creating a singing and signing choir, which was an absolutely new idea and we were, I think, pretty much the first organisation to champion it.

"That's how it all came about but if you had told me 20 years ago that we would now have a 50-strong choir also featuring carers, family members, students who want to learn singing and signing, and those who just love to sing and sign, I would have been amazed. Sometimes we have 60 at the rehearsals, and if you add all the staff that's involved, it's more like 70. It's magical; it's great.

"Projects like Hands & Voices and other projects we have set up, like IMPs [Inclusive Music Projects], are capturing the essence of what people can achieve if they have support and are encouraged to be creative. This is a life-changing experience for people and their friendships become life-long.

For 20 years now, I've been spending every Wednesday evening doing Hands & Voices and there's something very special about taking part."

Rose, who was chosen as Cultural Champion at last autumn's inaugural York Culture Awards, is passionate about the benefits those with learning difficulties and disabilities gain from participating in Hands & Voices.

"When you look at isolation and other complex issues they face day to day, just to keep going, it's fabulous that they can have these communal musical experiences to counter their more difficult challenges that stop them from being fully integrated members of the community," she says. "It's about looking beyond what you see and finding what gems can come out.

"So the workshops that they do and the training they're given gives them confidence; through this work people start to notice and realise where they fit in the world. We level the playing field and it doesn't matter what the levels are, it's just about having a good time, but the by-product is that with this 20th anniversary show we're raising the bar to give it professional status, working with director Chris Bartram and Andy Stafford, our assistant director, from the Lawnmowers theatre group in Gateshead.

"They've written the piece themselves over the past 12 weeks, and each have their 'moment' in the show, which is hard ti fit in within a one-and-a-half-hour running time! They've devised the script, which we've shaped from their ideas, and they've created the songs, sound effects and some of the incidental music.

"Our Ableweb group has done short film clips too, so it's become a multi-media showcase for the first time, and for the first time too, I can say that it's pretty much all their own work – and it's our biggest show since The Good Old Days at the National Centre for Early Music ten years ago, which makes it beautiful that we've chosen the theme of dreams."

* THE Hands & Voices choir provides a vital social lifeline for learning-disabled adults, who form lifelong friendships, develop new skills and share their love of music and performing.

"The choir and its talented members are a vibrant and valued part of their community, and they’re a joyful, unstoppable force when they get together," says Accessible Arts & Media creative director Rose Kent.

"With that in mind, you can make sure they can keep on singing, signing and laughing together by donating as part of the Big Give Christmas Challenge. Every donation made between now and December 5 will be doubled, so if you give £10, the choir receive £20. All money raised will go towards Hands & Voices, making our community a more vibrant and inclusive place to live." For more information, visit bit.ly/HandsandVoices.

The choir meets every Wednesday evening during term time from 7pm to 9pm at Burton Stone Community Centre, Evelyn Crescent, York; for more details go to aamedia.org.uk/our-projects/hands-and-voices/