Friday, 31 May 2019

All My Sons at The Old Vic | Review

These tickets were kindly gifted to me by The Old Vic.

My third play of the year! This time last year I would not have guessed for one second that I'd be going into June having seen 3 plays in just 5 months. I've always insisted that plays aren't for me, and whilst I am definitely more of a musicals person I've really surprised myself by how much I have enjoyed branching out of my comfort zone and appreciating some different shows.

It is also always a joy to visit The Old Vic, the building work to make the theatre more accessible and add more toilets is still ongoing and it is so exciting to see how much work has gone into it and how much they clearly care about accessibility. I cannot wait to visit this Autumn when the work is completed! Although, I've at least one more trip before then to see Andrew Scott in Present Laughter, but for now, let's talk about All My Sons.

I will admit that I didn't know much about Arthur Miller prior to seeing two productions written by him this year, but I am definitely glad that I now feel as though I've learnt a lot through my own research and watching the plays. It's interesting to watch something that was written so long ago, very far from the kind of writing I am used to in the productions I see.

'You don't realise how people can hate Chris, they hate so much they'll tear the world to pieces... '

America, 1947. Despite hard choices and even harder knocks, Joe and Kate Keller are a success story. They have built a home, raised two sons and established a thriving business. 

But nothing lasts forever and their contented lives, already shadowed by the loss of their eldest boy to war, are about to shatter. With the return of a figure from the past, long buried truths are forced to the surface and the price of their American dream is laid bare.' - The Old Vic

We have to talk about the set first, I am amazed every time I visit The Old Vic by their flexibility in how the stage and seating can be configured, every show I've seen has been set up in a different way. Sometimes there's been seating on stage, once there was a revolve and other times the stage has come up through the middle of the stalls! I'd seen photos of the set prior to seeing the show and had already been blown away but when that house came on to the stage at the start of the show it really took my breath away. The skill and preparation that had gone into the set was astounding and I applaud everyone that made that happen.

At school I was always fascinated with 1900s American history, whether it was the roaring 20s, the great depression or the years that followed after, so this kind of story was right up my street. Act 1 to me felt like context, you learnt a lot about each character's background and how they ended up where they are, which is of course important but I felt as though this didn't need a whole act to do. The story picked up pace quite quickly in Act 2 though, it was higher energy and I felt myself being a lot more engaged and invested in the story. There were so many raw emotions being portrayed that it was difficult not to find yourself immersed in their lives. Despite the fact that it was a little predictable at times this wasn't something that bothered me as the quality of the acting was incredibly high.

It was such a treat to get to see Bill Pullman, Sally Field, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan perform on stage, supported by an incredible cast. They all really made the performance what it is, to have 4 actors on stage who can portray emotional so exceptionally was such a delight and something I'm glad I didn't miss.

It's still true that I favour musicals over plays but the more I visit The Old Vic, the more I'm enjoying watching something that looks so deeply into what is being portrayed. Something that requires all of your concentration. I recommend everyone visits the theatre at least once to experience it, even if you are sure you're only a musicals person!

As for the access, things are much the same as my previous 2 trips. The building work is still ongoing so getting into the theatre is tricky for everyone but for the most part the team are doing a great job of organising things. I was sat in N6 again with a great view of the stage and the staff got me and the other access patrons in slightly earlier to make things easier. I am definitely counting down to when the building work is finished though, when I will finally see more of the theatre and have choice of 10 wheelchair spaces! Yes, 10! It's an exciting time.

All My Sons is playing until 8th June at The Old Vic, tickets are still available for a few performances on the website and day seats are available from 10am at the box office each day.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Phoenix Theatre (Come From Away) | An Accessibility Review

This week I had the worst theatre experience of my life at one of the most popular shows in London right now, the Olivier award winning musical Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre. Most people left the show feeling emotional, me included but I was on the edge of tears for a very different reason. The whole experience left me feeling othered and like I was undeserving of the same theatre experience that everyone else had. I have never left a show feeling as gutted as I did on Monday, as well as leaving feeling more disabled than I did when I went in. This was meant to be a review of the show but it's difficult to review something you effectively saw half of, so instead lets talk about the accessibility.

I knew from the start that the theatre didn't have great access, it's the reason I chose not to see Chicago when it was there last year but when Come From Away was announced I knew it was a show I did not want to miss. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be one of those situations where something isn't as bad as it seems. Oh how wrong I was.

I went along to the show with Perry to film an Accessibility in Theatres video where we document and show the access of the theatres and shows we see because as it was the case with the Phoenix Theatre, information online and given to you via the access booking line is not always accurate or clear. We arrived at the theatre's main entrance, which has a shallow step to enter to reach the box office, bar and merchandise stand. Information online said there was a ramp they could place down for me to enter but I began to question that when it wasn't offered. Staff were great and got my tickets for me but I wish they'd offered the ramp, because if I hadn't known about it and hadn't asked for it myself, I wouldn't have been able to see the merchandise stand. I suspect there have been a lot of disabled patrons who haven't known about this ramp and therefore have missed out on accessing the foyer because it isn't something that is offered as standard it seems. A minor issue though that with a few staff reminders can be ironed out, so I was still pretty confident and hopeful at this point.

It was about 5 minutes until the house opened when a member of staff led us round to the accessible entrance which is round the other side of the theatre. I'm never a fan of having to use a side/back entrance but it's something I'm used to as a wheelchair user. We were led in and in front of me looked like what I could only suspect was the box, but instead we were led towards a narrow door. Now I knew from information online that the doors and corridors inside the theatre were narrow but I was not prepared for just how claustrophobic it would feel. There was a door to access the corridor which contained another narrow door to the toilet and another narrow door to the box. But it wasn't just the width of the doors that was the problem, it was the turning space to get through them because the corridor was also so narrow. I think even a manual wheelchair user would have found it difficult.

Since the house wasn't open yet we were led into the space where the accessible toilet is, a circular room that made both me and Perry feel very closed in. The door to the accessible toilet was made to look like the wall, almost like a secret entrance. It was, odd? When I saw the accessible toilet itself I knew straight away I would not be able to turn around in it. There was a bin next to the toilet which meant I wouldn't be able to side transfer if I needed to and because I couldn't turn around I really struggled to lock the door. The lock was tiny and stiff and in the end I gave up, knowing Perry was the only other person outside. My confidence and hopeful attitude was dwindling by this point.

Once the house was open I was led out of the circular room and one of the front of house staff went to open the door to the box, before soon realising I needed to be on the other side of it. So, I navigate through the narrow corridor once again to the other end, turn around and come back down to then reach the door and see that they haven't removed the chair for me in the box. So, I have to reverse back down the corridor again, testing even my driving, the chair is removed and I can finally get into the box. It was a tight squeeze making the turn from the corridor though, despite my wheelchair fitting the dimensions they accept.

My view & Perry's view

It's difficult to describe what I felt when I entered that box and saw my view of the stage. Usually when I take my seat in a new theatre, to see a new show, I go in with wonder and excitement but this time I was left feeling only dread and disappointment. I knew my view would be obstructed, I'd been quoted 25% of the stage, but I was hopeful it was one of those situations where it's not as bad as people say. When in fact, it was so much worse. As you'll see from the photos the obstruction was closer to 50% of the stage. It is by far the worst view I have ever had in a theatre and I could have cried in that moment. Throughout the show Perry and I kept looking at each other as though to say 'can you see what is happening?' and I lost count of how many times I shook my head in disappointment. I spent the whole show lent over so I could see as much as possible and as a result have been in even more pain than usual ever since, it was the only way to get the best view I could. This is the only wheelchair space in the whole theatre, the only view I would ever get.

Gutted is probably the best way to describe how I felt though. I felt like I was watching the show through a window, I could see how others were reacting and I could understand why they were reacting that way but I just could not feel the same things myself. How can I connect with a show I can only see half of? I truly know that had I sat in a better seat, with a better view and in a position where the show is being performed to me rather than past me, Come From Away would have been up there with my all time favourites. I am used to restricted views and poor access as a disabled person (though I shouldn't be) but I have never left a show on the edge of tears because of it. I have never left a show feeling as excluded as I did at the Phoenix Theatre.

The kind of access I experienced at Come From Away is the kind of accessibility you'd expect from a small show/theatre where it's almost more understandable, but still far from acceptable, that access would be poorer. But this is a Broadway transfer, one of the biggest and most well loved shows in London at the moment. You expect better. I was originally excited when I'd heard the show had extended until February 2020 because it's clearly an important story but after Monday evening I feel only sadness as I know for as long as the show is at the Phoenix Theatre, myself and other disabled patrons will be excluded. Getting me through the theatre doors is not good enough, the experience I had is not good enough and for the first time this is one show and theatre I will be recommending fellow wheelchair users steer clear of.

Friday, 3 May 2019

I'm A Wheelchair User And I Can Walk

Last month I attended Naidex for the first time, a disability exhibition for professionals and the public to see what's new in the industry and get a chance to see products in person. It brings in a wide range of disabled people from all across the UK and I couldn't move 10 metres without bumping into someone I knew from social media, it was just as much about networking as it was about doing some shopping.

There were an incredible amount of wheelchair users there across both days and whilst I was aware that there are a lot of ambulatory wheelchair users out there (wheelchair users who can walk) I was surprised by the sheer amount of people I talked to in both manual and electric wheelchairs who could walk, whether it be a a few steps, just inside their homes or out and about switching between a wheelchair and other mobility aids.

Photo by Maciek Tomiczek

My wheelchair gives me the ability to conserve energy from walking and standing for long periods of time, meaning I have energy to do other things, like having a coffee or shopping. I call it my yes chair, yes I can go shopping, yes I can go out for a coffee. Without my chair I would be unable to do these things. Using a wheelchair has opened my world back up. - Amanda, 46, Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

I think the main difference having a wheelchair has made to my life is that I can do things! I could exist without my chair but I wouldn’t be living. I travel the country for Mixed Martial Arts events and concerts that I know I wouldn’t be able to without my chair. And I guess that leads me onto the other thing. What I want people to know about wheelchair users who can walk, is it’s not some kind of miracle if we stand/move out of our chairs! Wheelchairs aren’t just about being able to get from A to B, it’s about being able to live a life full of adventures, and that’s what being in a wheelchair does for me. - Emma, 22, Cerebral Palsy Spastic Diplegia

Through social media I've connected with so many people like me but being presented with it in person was a completely different experience and across those 2 days I wasn't scared to move my legs or stretch if I needed to, something I avoid doing in public due to fear of people's reactions. Naidex was a safe space and it was incredible to be in that bubble, but as I left I soon remembered that the rest of the world hasn't caught up with how varied each wheelchair user's condition is yet and how diverse disability is. And so, it was back to being fearful of 'exposing' myself as being able to walk. That's definitely not how I want life to be though, so I did what I know best and I started writing.

The main issues I have are explaining to new doctors that using a chair creates such a difference in my quality of life over painful and dangerous shuffling a few metres at a time, why wouldn’t you? I was really lucky to raise enough through friends, family and a million hours overtime to buy a super lightweight active user chair that has been built just for me. That keeps me working, albeit in an adapted capacity. - Holly, 39, EDS & Dysautonomia 

This is a topic I've wanted to explore deeper on my blog for a while and when I went to Naidex I realised what it was missing. I wanted to show people what I saw there, a wide range of wheelchair users who can walk and who are in fact the majority, not the minority like much of society has been led to believe. So many people think of wheelchair users and think spinal cord injuries and being paralysed, they think of something binary. You can either walk or you can't walk. But this couldn't be further from the truth.

It took a really (really) long time to come to terms with the idea of being a wheelchair user. I spent years forcing myself to walk, causing so much unnecessary pain and fatigue because I thought that if I 'ended up' in a chair it was my own fault for not working hard enough at keeping my body strong (something physio had pretty much told me when I first got diagnosed). This mentality stayed with me as my body did decline, and it was only through small experiences using a wheelchair at an airport, or my mum forcing me in one to get me out of bed and look around shops, that I realised it could make a huge difference to my life. From the moment I got my chair, I was annoyed with myself that I'd held out for so long. To me, my chair gives me the freedom to go out for 5 minutes without ruining my entire day. It allows me to be in the office at work without it knocking me out for 3 full days afterwards. Using a chair isn't about being lazy or not trying hard enough. At the end of the day, to me, it's about reducing suffering and increasing how much I'm able to participate in not only outside life, but my own. - Natasha, 30, EDS with multiple co-morbidities

I started using a wheelchair when I was about 17, it was for things like shopping and supermarket trips at first, places which involved a lot of walking and not many places to sit along the way. It was a transit wheelchair donated by a friend of my Mum's and it really opened doors for me. I was between surgeries and I'd been forced to leave school so my once weekly trips on the weekend were the one thing I often had to look forward to during the week. After my hip replacement we expected me to be walking without any mobility aids but that's when my current chronic back pain started. I pushed through on crutches for a while but ended up being stuck inside all week again and so when I received my ESA backpayment, I used it to purchase a manual wheelchair I believed I could push myself. I could manage to on smooth services but I couldn't use it independently and so the cycle began again. Each time I got more and more freedom but nothing really changed my life in the way my current powerchair has.

I have only had a wheelchair around nine months but the difference it has made already is amazing.  People assume my condition must have got a lot worse as I am now using a wheelchair. It hasn't, the wheelchair if anything makes me better. When use it I have less pain, less fatigue and most importantly more freedom. I wish more people realised that wheelchairs can be preventative, they aren't just for the end of the line. They can stop you getting there so quickly. - Kate, 35, Pigmented Villonodular Synovitis

At first I used crutches when going out but found it all too tiring and would be bed ridden for a couple of days after.  My life became so much easier when I got my power wheelchair as I’m able to take it on the bus and days out cause me a lot less pain and exhaustion.  However I am often scared to stand in shops to reach shelves as people tend to look disapproving like I’m faking. - Debbie, Spinal Disc Compression & Fibromyalgia

I use my powerchair all the time outside my home and inside my home I walk. I live in a largely inaccessible home with stairs, far from ideal with my condition and pain but I make it work because I have no choice. I don't tend to use mobility aids inside my home, we have a lot of grab bars and rails and I lean on walls and furniture. I could use my crutches but I find the pain it relieves in my back is not worth the pain it causes in my shoulders, arms and hands. You could come into my home and quite easily decide that I'm not disabled, that I shouldn't be a wheelchair user because I don't need my wheelchair inside my home. But without my powerchair I wouldn't get further than where the grab rails stop at the end of our path.

I began presenting with symptoms at age 20 in 2010. I fought the inevitable changes as long as I could. Even pushing past tears to appear “normal" because I wasn’t ready to be different. My mother had to force me to use a manual wheelchair. To my surprise once I got past the embarrassment I realised it gave me back my freedom. The only downside were the unkind comments and the scepticism. Many suggested I was faking and would express their disgust.  This had a detrimental effect on my self esteem and I stopped going out because I feared being judged. I want people to know that using a wheelchair allows me to get around easily without excessive pain. Please when you see a wheelchair user walking please don’t immediately assume they are faking. There are many disabilities that are invisible or present with intermittent weakness. We are simply trying to live life so I really want everyone to be mindful of your words and if curious please kindly ask. - Emerald, 29, Mitochondrial Myopathy 

I feel like I'm most empowered I've ever felt right now and I'm certainly the most comfortable with my disability that I have ever been. I love my powerchair and think it's so badass but it feels like being comfortable with being a powerchair user who can walk is one of the last hurdles for me to tackle and I'm definitely not alone in struggling with this as you'll read from everyone who has shared their experiences and stories for this post. I still almost feel like a fraud, I question my disability all the time and question whether I really need my powerchair, despite knowing deep down that without it I'd be housebound. But that's what happens when you live in a society that is so quick to brand something they don't understand a lie, you start to buy into that too.

My wheelchair is my lifeline to the outside world; without it I would be completely isolated and unable to participate in society. I have been using a powerchair for about four years and had manual chairs before then that I required somebody else to push. I have a long list of chronic illnesses that cause chronic pain. I’m in pain every single day. Some days it’s worse than others but every day I need mobility aids to get around. And whenever I go outside, I use my powerchair. I can walk but not unaided and not for long. Using crutches causes my shoulders to dislocate, puts pressure on my wrists, back, hips and knees, and leaves me in agony. My powerchair doesn’t do any of that; my days out in my chair are longer, more comfortable and much more enjoyable. I use a powerchair but I can walk and I can move my legs. People use wheelchairs for a variety of reasons, mine are pain and fatigue. - Sarah, 32

I waited a long time before I went into the chair almost full time. It took me 3 years of huffing and puffing. Pain, dislocations and fainting before I decided that maybe using my wheelchair might actually be good for me. And you know what the second I used it more I felt like I had more energy. I could do more, go further and when I wanted to I could stand and walk a little pushing my chair. It opened up the world. Yes I get funny looks when I walk pushing my chair. But those people do not know what my body is doing or the pain I am in. I don't care about those people anymore because now I am living my best life and I am able to do more. I have travelled the world and now I am getting back into work because I am not living a lie trying to walk everywhere and breaking my body. - Fuchsia Aurelius, 34, Vascular EDS & Spinal Damage

I can almost understand why those who walk with no trouble could find it confusing to see someone supposedly 'give up' walking when so many couldn't see their life without that ability but, when walking is painful, difficult or fatiguing, you start to view it in a different way. It starts to become something you fear and avoid. And rightly so, if you were in pain you would take painkillers to manage it so why is using a wheelchair to manage things like pain and fatigue any different?
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