Hello dear readers, it’s me again, Samantha. I have a lot of catching up to do here. I have a list of blogs to write, most of them positive. This one has skipped to the front of the list. It was so, so nearly a hugely positive post, it really was.  So near, and yet, so far…. *sigh*.

I’ve blogged about access at the National Theatre and Punchdrunk before. Both were really positive experiences, so I had high hopes for their joint production, The Drowned Man.

Punchdrunk are a theatre company known for creative and unusual performances, particularly site specific promenade theatre. The Drowned Man, a collaboration with the National Theatre, is no exception to this. And if you read my rantings regularly, you must know what I culture vulture I am.

The performance takes place in a huge warehouse like building near Paddington Station,the 4 or 5 floors of which have been transformed into a golden age of cinema American movie studio, Temple Studios, and its surroundings. The story doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion; once inside, you are free to wander as you see fit, with the crowd, or, more encouraged, away from everyone else. You may choose to follow a particular character, wander backstage areas of the studio, or any other path you wish. You must wear a mask for the whole 3 hours, and talking is prohibited. You are encouraged to seperate from your party.

For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, I’m visually impaired. I’m registered blind, but have a small amount of functional vision, and use low vision aids and magnifiers.

Now, this is not a performance that lends itself to audio description, as every person’s journey is unique, so I was really curious to find out how accessibility would be handled. The no talking rule poses a further conundrum; how does one get assistance, should one need it? (Staff are on hand, marked by black masks, to assist if needed). The mask made it a little tricky to use low vision aids, too.

I was delighted to discover, that, in meeting their obligation for “reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act 2010, as well as offering a discounted ticket for disabled people and carers (as recommended by Attitude is Everything, and offered by many theatres), an Access Guide was going to be offered.

I had no idea what was involved, and, in fact, was not told about this when booking my tickets for my first visit. It was only on arrival that I was told I had an Access Guide booked, which was news to me. It turned out that a very nice and helpful young man would come with us on our journey, and would be able to help as needed. He was able to lead me to better viewing positions for scenes we were watching, access the lift instead of the stairs, and get me close to the final scene. It worked really, really well, and I was hugely impressed at the creativity that had gone into setting this up.  They were also able to offer a red tag for visitors with a disability, to signal to performers not to interact with you, if this is appropriate (no spoilers, but, in my case, hell no, bring it on!). I held onto my carer’s arm, so we weren’t split up, but had planned with the Access Guide how we’d handle it if that happened.

The show itself is breathtaking, truly immersive and it entices you back, as you know you’ve missed so much. It lends itself brilliantly to repeated viewings, which is where we came up against the problems. Up until this point, this blog entry would have been positively glowing.

A few weeks later, I found myself in London with a spare evening. Myself, and the carer that had come with me the first time, decided we’d love to see The Drowned Man again. We realised that at this late point, they probably wouldn’t be able to provide an Access Guide, but we decided that, since my carer had done a good job of memorising the layout, we could probably manage without. I knew I’d probably not be able to see as much, but we wanted to explore some of the less busy areas and I was willing to forego being close to the final scene.

So, I phoned up the box office. Yes, tickets were available. No, they couldn’t provide an access guide, but we were welcome to go, if we felt we could manage without.

BUT… they wouldn’t offer the discount.

Now, a 2 for 1 offer, or alternatively, a discounted ticket for both the disabled person and carer amounting to the same thing, is offered in acknowledgement of the fact that as a disabled person, you may not be able to attend without the assistance of a carer. I certainly wouldn’t be able to attend alone, even with the Access Guide being offered; I’d need to find the building, find the toilets, bar, things like that. It’s unfair that I should have to pay full price for a ticket for myself and a carer, essentially, I’d be paying double.

And they didn’t say that their safety procedures required me to go around with their Access Guide (I’d previously been told it was my choice whether I chose to use that service); this wasn’t a safety issue. I could go, they just wouldn’t offer the discount at short notice.

So, an able bodied person could decide to go at last minute, but not a disabled person. Unless you paid double.

Unsurprisingly, we chose not to go, and so, missed out. I was cross, but decided to let that one go a little.  Strike one. But they had both been so good before, I decided I’d let it slide this time. I was too tired and busy to fight.

I have a friend who has mental health problems, who was very interested in the show, but unsure if she would be able to manage it, so didn’t book initially.  She doesn’t normally book access tickets for theatre, or require a carer to come with her, as her needs don’t require it for most traditional theatre show. But this performance is different.

After we’d discussed it, and I’d discussed it with the Access Guide on my second visit to the show, we agreed that she would be able to manage it, if we took the same carer I’d taken previously, who knew the site, and if she had a red tag, so the performers didn’t interact with her. We agreed that if we got separately, the Access Guide would stay with me, and our friend/carer, with my other friend. That way, if she found she got too anxious and needed to leave, no one would be left without assistance. We decided we could definitely share the services of one Access Guide, and although we could theoretically bring another carer, we thought this system would work well. The Access Guide was also really encouraging when we talked about it, and seemed confident it would be a good way to make it work.

So we decided to go again.

And then I got a “letter” (via email) from Temple Studios, inviting me to return and with a phone number to call. The recorded message invited you back “as a studio executive”, if you gave a certain code. I’ve discovered this means you go in via a different entrance, and get some “extra bits” before the usual show. This sounded great, so we decided to go for it.

This afternoon, I phoned the National Theatre box office, to book tickets for the 9pm performance on Friday 4th April, for two disabled people, and one carer.

Initially the woman wasn’t sure how to book access tickets, but figured it out. All was fine, until I mentioned the secret code… “hmmm, that makes it a bit more difficult, I’m not sure how to book that on the system, but I’ll find out, I’m sure it’ll be fine”. She went to talk to a colleague. Then she came back, and said I was welcome to attend the extended version of the show, but no discounts would be offered for this.

So, they want to encourage repeat attendance with the lure of extra bits, but only able bodied people can see them? Oh no, wait, you can see them if you are disabled, but only if you pay double for your ticket?!

I explained that I felt this was in breach of the Equality Act, as it was offering a poorer service to disabled customers. She said it was Punchdrunk’s decision, and I’d need to contact them, but went to talk to a colleague. She then said that they weren’t breaking the law, as there is no law that says they have to offer discounted tickets. I explained that, by offering discounted tickets, they had indicated they saw discounted tickets as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, and that I felt they had no good reason not to offer the same reasonable adjustments for the slightly extended show. The woman said she totally agreed, but reiterated it was Punchdrunk’s decision and there was nothing the National Theatre could do. She provided me with an email address for Punchdrunk. I decided I would purchase tickets for the regular show, then contact Punchdrunk about accessing the longer version.

I wasn’t very happy, but… Strike Two.

Then it came to paying. The discounted tickets had somehow increased by £5 each, which was odd, but *shrugs*.

Then she tried to charge me for two discounted tickets and one full price. When I queried this, reiterating that we had two disabled people and one carer, she said since they were providing assistance, we couldn’t get a carer ticket. When I questioned if their policy on this had changed, she said it hadn’t, then said I was being charged for one disabled ticket, one carer, and one full price. I explained again that we had two disabled people coming. She said something about them providing an Access Guide and only having one. I said that was fine, we’d discussed how that would work with the Access Guide.

And then she said “you can’t both attend on the same night!!”.

  • So, disabled people can’t go last minute.
  • Disabled people can’t see the extended version of the show.
  • And only one disabled person and carer per show!!

In other words, if you’re disabled, you can’t have disabled friends and expect to be able to go to the theatre with them!!

Or, The Drowned Man breaches the Equality Act 2010, by failing to provide equality of access to the show, particularly to the extended version , and failing to provide equality of access to tickets (And I didn’t even mention disabled people only being able to book by phone, not online like everyone else, because I was being kind).

Now, I know about fire regulations and health and safety and all that jazz- but they were happy for us to go as long as we paid full price!!

STRIKE THREE!!

So now, I have no tickets, the run is ending soon, and I can’t book my train tickets to London either. Even if I can get this mess sorted out, I will probably have to pay a lot more for my train tickets.

Punchdrunk, The National Theatre, three strikes and you are out, you have a red card, do not pass go, do not collect £200 (and lots of other mixed sports metaphors!)

I am so very disappointed. And cross. And TIRED of this. So so TIRED of this.

DE JA VU.

Please share this post if you think this is unacceptable. I’m so sick of having the same arguments over and over again.

The National Theatre tweet at @NationalTheatre, Punchdrunk are @PunchdrunkUK.

Not that they’ve responded to tweets about this so far.