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Disability access: O Brave New World

As many readers will know from my weekly Alzheimer’s blog, my husband, is ill and declining fairly rapidly. His walking is very slow, shaky and limited and he is beginning to have falls. So I have bought a wheelchair and, as a wheelchair pusher, I am now discovering a whole new theatrical world.

In practice I don’t take Mr E to the theatre when I’m reviewing anything like as often as I used to. I frequently leave him with paid carers at home but he does still like to come out sometimes if I pick the right shows (or concerts) so of course I do my best to facilitate that.

Venues have to comply with quite strict regulations about access these days – very different from my last stint as a wheelechair pushed when, in the mid 1970s, I taught in a school for disabled children and there were many places which were simply closed to us and our pupils. Attitudes have changed and things are much, much better now.

What strikes me forcibly about the theatres I have so far taken Mr E to on his wheels is just how kind and helpful the staff (and public)  are. Take the Marlowe at Canterbury where I reviewed a Philharmonia concert recently. I didn’t actually want to take the chair into the auditorium but I’d wheeled him across the city from the car park via a pit-stop and I needed somewhere to park the chair for the duration of the concert. Front of house staff found me a corner of the foyer willingly, smilingly and without making any fuss at all.

Then there was Chichester Festival Theatre (for Shadowlands and My Family in the same week). I can park with a disability blue badge so close to the theatre at Chichester that I didn’t need to take the chair in although I’d pushed him into the city to find food first. I award to CFT the Susan Elkin Gold Star for disability lavatories, though – best I’ve seen anywhere. Spotlessly clean and well designed. The former is very important since I usually end up on my hands and knees dealing with trousers and things. (Don’t let’s dwell on that)

Last week we saw Our Town at Open Air Theatre Regents Park where Jo Allan PR, the company who do the press for OAT had helpfully organised me a wheelchair space and adjacent seat in Row J – all more or less on a level. Thanks, guys –  it worked well. And OAT has a pretty decent disability loo too although I’m not quite sure why the light in it has to be quite so dim. Yet another example of things I’m now noticing which would have passed me by completely only a few months ago.

But the best experience so far was at Playhouse Theatre. Whitstable which is run by volunteers for the presentation of, mainly, community theatre. We were there for Theatrecraft’s Tom Dick and Harry last Thursday. I pushed Mr E in  – up a couple of shallow steps but as people are always telling me I’m a strong woman – and asked if I could leave the wheelchair under the stairs which Tina, duty front of house manager, readily agreed to. I assured her that Mr E is usually fine going up steps. But he looks disconcertingly fragile and wobbly so she and a colleague helped him all the way to our seats, assisted by a kind punter when we got to our row. At the end of the show Tina brought the wheelchair up to the first floor foyer and helped me get him into it. She then took us down to a side entrance (which I didn’t even know existed) via a platform lift on the stairs which the public don’t usually see. It was A* service and all done with cheerful, unpatronising kindness.

I’ve always known that theatres are nice places and that most theatre people are wonderful but I’m currently seeing that confirmed in a completely new way.

Our Town

Our Town,  Open Air Theatre Regents Park

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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