Let me start by assuring you that Hamilton was as astounding as the hype suggests. There is nothing to worry about in terms of the quality of the performance. However, as the theatre has just had a refurbishment, I had higher expectations of the accessibility. I’m going to break it down into sections.
I signed up to the pre-sale list as soon as it was announced. Somewhat predictably, I was unable to buy the tickets I needed online (see: the vast majority of times I’ve bought theatre or gig tickets). I was sent to a form to fill out, with assurances that I would be phoned back – with no timespan given. That was worrying to me because I have big phone anxiety, not to mention a variable sleeping pattern, and only turn my phone ringer on when I know I’ll be getting a call. Luckily they called two weeks later when I was in Starbucks playing on my phone. I got the impression that they hadn’t even decided how many wheelchair spaces to have yet.
No complaints here. We made ourselves known to the staff who were managing the queue, and were handed over to the Access Host – and fairly impressed that they had someone who was dedicated to that job. The wheelchair-friendly entrance was around the side, no scary ramps, good sized door.
The Wheelchair Space
Here I encountered problems. The first thing I noticed was that the floor, as is common in theatre stalls near the back, was sloped downwards. While the stalls seating stood upright, my wheelchair tipped downwards to the point where I had to use the tilt-in-space function just to be sitting upright and take pressure off my hips. I’ve been to theatres with sloping floors where a sort of wedge was used to even out the angle for the wheelchair user (after all, not all wheelchairs, manual or electric, have tilt-in-space functions).
The other problem with the wheelchair space was the view. At the Victoria Palace Theatre, the only wheelchair spaces are on either side of Row T, the back row of the stalls. This would have been less of a problem, if not for the significant overhang of the circle balcony (see picture below) which meant we were often unable to see when performers were on the higher levels of the stage. When I posted the picture below on Twitter, multiple people who had also booked a wheelchair space (either side), told me that, like me, they had not been told that the wheelchair space had a restricted view when booking. But, because this is the only wheelchair space available, it seems to be take it or leave it. I did ask the Access Host if this row had the only wheelchair spaces, and she talked to someone more senior and came back with the answer that the council did a health and safety check and told them that the wheelchair space had to be at the back due to fire safety. I took this at face value at first, then remembered that at another theatre I had come in through a corridor, and was still placed halfway down the stalls section. I plan on contacting Delfont Mackintosh, who own the theatre, with my access concerns, and will hopefully be able to verify this.
I didn’t go to the bar before the show started, but C tells me that he saw another wheelchair user there. That, and the fact that the Access Host offered to escort us to the bar before the show, makes me believe that there is an accessible route to at least one bar. Something that I would have appreciated was being brought a merchandise catalogue, which I’ve been offered in other theatres. I don’t know if there was a merchandise stand I could have accessed* (my partner, C, saw one that was down some stairs), but in any case being in a throng of people is incredibly stressful and dangerous (for them as well as me!) in a powerchair, and I’d rather order remotely to avoid that.
* Update: I have been told by someone on Twitter who has visited with a wheelchair using friend that there is indeed an accessible route to a merchandise stand.
Probably the worst of the “accessible” features. To the theatre staff’s credit, the Access Host came with me in order to keep people to one side while I passed though (the corridor is quite narrow), but when I got to the toilet I found the most face-palm worthy of all errors – a door that opens inwards. I reckon if the door had opened outwards, I would have just about been able to get my powerchair in without it being wedged next to the toilet itself and have had enough room to safely transfer. As it was, because the door was quite wide (which would have otherwise been a good thing), even ramming my chair as close to the toilet bowl as it would go, returning tilt to a fully upright position, and moving the seat back as far forward as possible, the door wouldn’t shut. I had no choice but to leave my powerchair unattended outside, angry with the knowledge than many wheelchair users will not have that option if they need to use the loo. Maybe those who use small self-propelled chairs would be okay, but there wasn’t a lot of space to use the pull down transfer rail that I saw. Oh, and when I got into the theatre, I could see there were two folded transport chairs belonging to the theatre on the inside, further reducing the available space. Again to credit the staff, these were removed after I commented. But overall, not great accessible toilet facilities which many wheelchair users would find troublesome.
I will be working all of these worries into an email to Delfont Mackintosh.
& again, don’t worry, the show itself was awesome 🙂
*Update 09/01 – Someone kindly sent me the theatre’s (out of date) access page which states that there are FOUR wheelchair spaces, and they’re somewhere in the middle, not right at the back. I wonder why they changed this? More for the email…
*Update 30/03 – Hello again! I’ve had some replies from the operations manager of the theatre, who was very apologetic and impressively keen to rectify the issues I raised. In their response to my email, the manager promised to sort out the levelling of the wheelchair spaces (they now have a wedge that non-tilting wheelchairs can use, which should be offered by the access host on arrival), to instruct staff never to store the theatre’s own wheelchairs in the accessible toilet, and to replace the inwards-opening toilet door with a bi-fold one. All of these things seem to have been done immediately after my email (although I have had reports of wheelchairs stored in the loo again, which I have fed back), and in addition I have been told there are wheelchair spaces available in the stall-level boxes (which have a level floor), bringing the total number of spaces per performance to seven. Thanks to everyone who’s been to the show since who’s shared their experiences with me about the improved access. If you’re going to Hamilton in London soon, and are a wheelchair user or will be using the accessible toilet, please let me know how the access was as I am eager to know how much difference the improvements have made the experience for disabled fans!