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.
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6 comments

  1. Sorry you had such a bad time of it and that you have to keep raising these issues but I'm sure a lot of people will benefit in the long run....hopefully sooner rather than later! #batclan

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    1. Thank you! I hope this opens peoples eyes to how inaccessible theatre can be!

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  2. Sounds terrible! I'd request a full refund.

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  3. I'm really interested to see how the theatre responds to this. This is appalling treatment that shouldn't be acceptable in 2019. A refund isn't enough. They have to address this, and do better.

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    1. I will definitely keep everyone updated, I'm in the process of emailing with them about it!

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