Monday, 10 February 2020

Dear Evan Hansen | Review

Show rating: ★★★★
Accessibility rating: ★★★★

Dear Evan Hansen has to be one of the most highly anticipated shows to arrive in the West End, from the first announcements to the cast reveal, all eyes have been on this show. It's connected with people all over the world and despite not getting caught up in the hype, I was still intrigued as to what was drawing everyone into this emotional piece of theatre. It's a stripped back show with celebrated music and a small cast of just 8, but it feels enormous at times. The story follows Evan, a socially awkward teenager attempting to navigate his way through high school. He gets caught up in a lie though, a big lie, and we watch as this all unfolds. Social media plays a big part in this show too and the timing couldn't be more apt with conversations constantly happening about whether social media is a good thing or a bad thing.

I went into the show knowing what it's about but I think you forget until you're sat in the theatre how big the topics they're tackling are. Mental health, bullying, the breakdown of a family. It's hard hitting stuff folded between songs that can lift you up and just as quickly, send you hurtling back down to earth. I'm always hesitant when a shows most well known song comes along so early in the evening but whilst Waving Through A Window is certainly an incredible number, for me it's You Will Be Found, Good For You and Sincerely, Me that steal the show. Sometimes it felt like the stage was just a little too empty and there wasn't quite enough happening for my taste but these songs were scattered throughout the evening perfectly to pick things up.

I felt at times that Evan's social anxieties were perhaps being over acted and used as humour a little too often, sometimes it just wasn't necessary and it's not a show that needs to rely on such things so I was a little surprised by that choice. I'm also definitely someone who prefers a busier stage as well so things did feel a little quiet and empty occasionally due to the simple set. Lighting and sound is used frequently in place of a physical set, with the cast often being aided by just a chair and a laptop. It works, but for me it still felt as though something was missing. I didn't fall head over heels in love with this show but I certainly enjoyed it and in particular I was blown away by the cast.

Photos by Matthew Murphy

Sam Tutty is simply sensational and it's so refreshing to see a West End show being led by such fresh young talent.  Doug Colling shone out during Sincerly, Me as Connor Murphy and Lucy Anderson has the most beautiful voice that cuts through the silence in the audience. Rebecca McKinnis was just as convincing a parent as she was in Everybody's Talking About Jamie too, with So Big/So Small being a really beautiful and still moment amongst the chaos. I had first cover for Alana Beck on, the wonderful Courtney Stapleton who I know from previous shows and what a treat it was to see her perform, her characterisation was spot on and her voice was powerful at every opportunity.

There is so much that this show did well and I was surprised by how much I did enjoy it, but it's not one I'm bursting to see it again and even now I can't quite put my finger on why! I think it's a must watch though, the music really speaks for itself and hits so differently when it's being performed on stage versus listening to the cast recording. I can really see why so many do adore it!

As for the access, this was my first visit to the Noël Coward Theatre and so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I arrived at the entrance to theatre where security were able to radio through to find a member of staff to assist me through a different entrance to the theatre. The member of staff arrived and directed me to a door on the right hand side of the main entrance, which they opened from the inside to greet me. I knew that access to the foyer and seating was via a ramp but without photos (which even I forgot to take), you never really know how steep it was going to be. Now, if you've read my & Juliet review you'll know that I struggled with the steepness of the ramps at the Shaftesbury Theatre, this ramp wasn't quite as steep but it definitely wasn't a calm gradient! A manual wheelchair user and even some electric wheelchair users would certainly need assistance to use it, or just someone stood behind them for reassurance.

Ramp navigated I now had access to the foyer, where I could see the cast board (well, screen) and access the merchandise stand. Once the doors opened I was taken to my seat which was in Box M, the website cites the door to this box as being 68cm wide and I'd say that's pretty accurate so definitely give your wheelchair a measure before booking! It's a long thin box with a large 'window' at the end to view the stage. It's quite unique from other boxes I've sat in as it's positioned towards the back of the Royal Circle, rather than on the side of it and closer to the stage. It was a great view that I really couldn't complain about, especially as the access rate is £23.75 for this seat. I think perhaps whoever is sat closest to the stage might have a slight restriction as I was sharing the box with someone else and they had to lean forward every now and then. 

The standard accessible toilet is modern and spacious, it's right by where I entered the theatre so I'd use it before you pass through the foyer as it's small foyer that gets busy quickly and I had to be guided through the crowd by a member of staff to access the toilet before the show. Upon leaving we decided that if I wasn't in a rush then it was probably best to wait a few minutes before attempting to leave, which was definitely the right decision and made for a stress free exit. All I had to do was navigate the ramp, which was much easier going down, and then I was out! Other than perhaps the ramp I have to say it was quite a stress free visit! I was really impressed by the access rate price and the view from the box in particular. I can definitely see me returning in the future!

I think I can see this being a show I revisit later on in the year, perhaps on my second trip I will fall head over heels in love like others have! For now I appreciate the music and the talented cast, both of which are factors more than big enough for me to recommend a visit. 

Thursday, 6 February 2020

It's Expensive Being Disabled

Life is expensive, this will come as no surprise to anyone but what might surprise you is the fact that disabled people have, on average, extra costs of £583 a month (Scope). For 1 in 5 people those costs are closer to £1,000. This is on top of all the usual costs of life; bills, food, social expenses. Can you imagine someone suddenly asking you to find an extra £600 every month? Well, that's basically what disabled people are faced with.

In the UK we have a benefit called PIP (Personal Independence Payment) which is supposed to exist to cover these extra costs and don't get me wrong, without those payments I'd be in trouble, but it's a flawed system. Many come away from the rigorous assessments to find that they have been denied any support, or given not enough support. Our extra costs don't just disappear when this happens though. Accessible food still needs to be bought, the heating still needs to go on more often than other households, taxis still need to be paid for to get us from A to B. I consider myself very lucky that I still live at home and right now, I can cover all my extra costs but a future of uncertainty always lies ahead and I worry about the day when I don't have enough to cover things like my powerchair insurance. These extra costs stop me from doing things too. I recently went to the cinema with my Mum, she drove there but because I use a large powerchair I couldn't travel with her and the taxi home cost me £25. We considered going again but the cost of the taxi turns a fairly cheap evening out into an expensive one, so I decided against it.

Being forced to fundraise for and buy my own powerchair rather than benefiting from NHS help comes with a price tag too. I was lucky in that I was able to fundraise for my current powerchair, but before this I had been buying my own mobility aids such as a manual wheelchair and specialised crutches, totalling to about £300 altogether. My insurance for my current powerchair is nearly £150 a year and if it weren't for the fact that I have a close relationship with the company who make my chair then I'd also have to be covering any repairs or services that my powerchair needs. All of this quickly adds up.

There are also one off costs such as hotel stays for trips that others could perhaps do in a day. Last year I also looked into travelling up to Leeds via coach, the means of transport my friends were taking, but my powerchair turned out to be too big to fit and so I was forced to get the train which was 3 times the price. These are things that I often don't even think about on a daily basis, or realise that it's an extra disability related cost, because it's just so normal to me. I don't see hundreds of pounds missing on a daily basis but finding the money for things as and when they crop up is when I feel it most. Expensive black cab journeys, mobility assistance aids, premade food and food deliveries. It adds up slowly. Whenever I'm able to save a little bit of money away I find that it often just comes straight back out of my savings account when these costs pop up.

I've spoken to journalists about this issue before and each time they ask me the same question, how much are your extra costs? Each time I say, I don't know because I have never wanted to add it up. I have never wanted to know just how much more money I'm spending than my peers, simply because I'm disabled. It's not even something I'd given much thought to until this previous year because these extra costs are so normal to me, it's not until I compare my life to others that the differences become visible. It's true that money is not the source of happiness but, would it make my life easier as a disabled person? Absolutely, it would.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Powerchair Update | 2 Years On

Disclaimer: I was gifted an upgrade on my powerchair by Quantum.

2 years ago today I was sat impatiently waiting in my living room, looking out of the window every time I heard the sound of a car. I could barely sit still out of excitement, but why? Well, I was waiting for my new life to arrive. It is certainly not an understatement to use the words 'powerchair' and 'my new life' as interchangeable terms, because that's exactly what my powerchair has given me. A new life, a new chance, new opportunities. The chance to reach my potential. Back then I mostly saw it as a gateway to enjoy life again and do the things I'd missed, simple things like going shopping without it ending in tears. But, looking at my life now I can see that my new powerchair represents so much more than that for me. My life is simply unrecognisable in ways that I never allowed myself to dream or hope about. That's what my powerchair has given me ultimately, the ability to dream and make those dreams my reality.

It's difficult to summarise the past 2 years into one post, if you read my previous updates you can see how much my confidence has grown with time. I've become braver and more daring. Once upon a time I could never imagine myself travelling into London alone and now I do it weekly, often travelling across the country too. I'm saying yes to more, often taking leaps of faith and seeing where I land. I cannot believe the opportunities I've had thanks to this incredible gift and I will never stop being grateful. I've been writing these updates to try and show people that using a wheelchair doesn't have to be a negative thing, for me it was life changing and opened up my world and I hope that's what I've achieved.

The i-Level function on my Quantum Q6 Edge 3.0 powerchair has enabled me to regain a level of independence that I didn't think I'd get back. Even now being able to turn down help from strangers to reach high shelves in supermarkets is just as satisfying as the first time I was able to say 'no, I'm okay'. When I go to the theatre I can 'stand' with everyone else to give a standing ovation. I can wheel alongside my girlfriend holding her hand. The disability activist in me still fights against this everyday, because the social model of disability says that it is the world that surrounds us that is the problem and should change, but I cannot deny the positive impact that i-Level has had on my life. I am grateful for it every single day.

One change I could have never have predicted would be possible is that I'm now able to work. I've been self employed now for 5 months, I'm not working many hours at all and certainly not earning much but I am finally doing what I love. My powerchair has enabled me to say yes to things that have furthered my career. It's enabled me to become a published author, a freelance writer, and more recently to pursue my love of theatre and live events photography. Just this week I was able to say yes to a last minute trip to Leeds to visit a theatre, learn about their accessibility and take some rehearsal photos. Not only would that have not been possible pre-powerchair, I also wouldn't have had the confidence to say yes. My powerchair makes me a better and more confident version of myself. Someone who can be spontaneous and can grab opportunities as and when they arise. So, when I talk about the impact my powerchair has had on my life, yes we can talk in terms of me not being in as much pain when I'm out and about but the real impact has been the confidence it has gifted me as a result. That is what has changed my life the most.

All I can do is smile when I look back on these past 2 years, the experiences I've had and the people I've met have shaped me into who I am today. It all feels like some kind of surreal dream that this is my life now, for so long I couldn't see beyond the end of a day but now I can safely allow myself to look forward to the future with hope. 2 years might have passed but it feels like my journey is only just beginning.

To every single person who donated, shared my GoFundMe or simply just supported me in this journey; thank you. Collectively all of your small gestures changed my whole life and for that I will never be able to express my gratitude enough.
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