Thursday 21 September 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: accessibility review

I have now seen the above play twice, and though it was about time I wrote an access review for Autistic on Wheels, from both the autism and wheelchair perspectives.

Please note: this is not a review of the play itself, and although there will be some slight references to content, they shouldn't spoil anything for those who haven't read/seen it. And I really don't want to get into a debate here about whether or not Cursed Child is canon.

I'll be honest, I didn't expect to see the play this soon, certainly not twice in less than 6 months! A couple of my friends booked tickets nearly 18 months ago; I booked the first time in early January. By then I'd already read the playscript, because a) I didn't know if/when I'd get round to seeing it; b) I have zero restraint when it comes to Potter stuff!

I initially went on February 15th (both parts in the same day) with my husband, using Christmas money. He's not particularly into Harry Potter but his background is theatre and from what I'd read of it, I had a feeling he'd enjoy it. And he really did! I enjoyed it so much I wanted to see it again, and the first person I thought of was Amy, my husband's cousin's girlfriend who has become a friend in her own right (she really wanted to see CC; he's not into theatre or HP so he really didn't). Asking her if she wanted to see it with me is possibly one of the easiest-to-answer questions I've ever asked! She and I did the two consecutive evenings (part 1 Thursday 27th July, part 2 Friday 28th).


(Of tickets, not the surname of the actor who originally played Draco! Who, by the way, was absolutely stupendous and I'm a little peeved with the reviews that barely acknowledge his part because he was so fantastic; the media attention was, of course, on Harry, Ron and Hermione.)

There is an "Access Rate" ticket cost that is £140 for 2 people for both parts. This works out at £35 per person per part, and may sound a lot but if you're booking the wheelchair seat, is rather cheaper than what the people sitting around you in the main auditorium will have paid! Also, it's an excellent price considering this is the West End. The Access Rate doesn't, as far as I'm aware, cover just the wheelchair seats; if I remember correctly it covers all disabilities if you require any kind of support/assistance from another person. There are 2 specific wheelchair spaces, at either end of row Q. 


There is a specific telephone line for booking disabled-access tickets, separate from the main booking options. It's available on the CC website but if you can't find it, there's a specific email address you can use to inquire about access and they're happy to supply the phone number. I emailed them about a year ago because I wanted to know about disabled access should I ever want to attend, and they were swift to reply, ensuring I had the phone number and answering all my questions thoroughly.

When I called the dedicated access number there was no irritating hold music (the DWP is - ironically - particularly bad for this). The people I spoke to were very good and clear with information. On both booking occasions I was given a couple of options for dates, and the staff member was able to reserve two or three date options (held for 72 hours) while I checked with Gideon/Amy.

Although the able-bodied seats are all sold out till December 2018, there is availability for wheelchair seats (also, sometimes people can't make it at the last minute so return their tickets for resale). Saturdays and Wednesdays, when they do both parts in the same day, are almost all sold out but the consecutive-days option is more flexible, and that was the option Amy and I went for, as she's a primary-school teacher and at the time of booking didn't have the 2017-18 academic year term dates, so Wednesdays were out. It's definitely worth giving them a call. Gideon and I managed to get a Wednesday performance, which I really wanted to do at the time, partly because I thought it would be more immersive but also on a practical level, as the nearest Tube station was not (at the time of booking) wheelchair-accessible, so we wanted to minimise how many times we'd have to haul the chair up and down stairs and escalators.

Visual impairment: audio-description availability is not standard; there are specific performances for this that have to be booked (I don't know how many of these performances there are but I get the impression there aren't many). As theatre is a live medium, they have someone describing live, so each performance is going to vary slightly, thus they presumably can't just have pre-programmed/recorded headsets like at the cinema. There are headsets for the audio descriptions; presumably they have to be booked in advance. Guide dogs are welcomed, according to the website, and they advise sitting in an aisle seat for comfort and they have a dog-sitting service if it is easier for you (they recommend advance booking for this, presumably due to staff availability and space limitations).

Deaf/hard-of-hearing: According to the CC website the theatre uses a Williams Sound hearing assistance system and headsets are provided, on a first-come-first serve basis. It doesn't state how many headsets there are. The box office is fitted with a loop system. There are specific captioned performances using StageText. Again, it doesn't say on the website how many of these there are, but I imagine those tickets get snapped up pretty quickly. One question I asked when I phoned in January to book, as someone working towards becoming a BSL interpreter, was whether they had any signed performances. To date, there are none planned, which I find pretty shocking and appalling, considering how many Deaf BSL users there are in the country (Deaf access to theatre is woefully inadequate). I understand that in some ways it could be considered a big undertaking, because it's a two-part play, but if they haven't even considered it or decided it would be too difficult, that's appalling. Yes, it would be incredibly exhausting for the same interpreter to do both parts in the same day (and theatre interpreting is exhausting), but surely they could either book two (one for part 1, another for part 2) - though that wouldn't be ideal because it would interfere with continuity and immersion as every signer has their own particular style, same as every speaking person has their individual voice - or do it on the Thursday/Friday?

Autism/neurodivergent/additional needs/etc: Apparently there are some special, more relaxed performances that allow more coming and going from the auditorium for individuals as needed; again, the best way to find out about these and book them is contacting the access office. There is also a quiet room where the play can be watched on a screen if the auditorium isn't a viable option.

Getting there

Car: There is no parking near the theatre (because this is central London). If you aren't able to manage public transport there's a plethora of taxis. I've never used a taxi in London with the wheelchair but I suspect, like anywhere else, there are some amazing ones and there are also some that are...less than considerate/accommodating.

Bus: There are several different buses that stop near the theatre: 4, 19, 24, 29, 38 and 176. Timetables and routes can be found through the TfL website. (TfL = Transport for London, and includes buses, trains, Tube, water buses, trams and any other form of public transport.)

Tube: The nearest stations are Leicester Square (Northern and Piccadilly lines), Piccadilly Circus (Bakerloo and Piccadilly) and Tottenham Court Road (Central and Northern). Of these three, Tottenham Court Road is the only one that's wheelchair-accessible, and that's only recent - since about a week before I went to see CC the first time! All three stations are pretty hectic, because it's central London, so if you have major issues with that, noise-cancelling headphones would be an excellent plan! I'm actually OK with it, I can cope with it in small doses, I think mainly because I grew up with it so I learned to cope. If you're doing consecutive days, I would advise travelling into the area prior to rush hour (which starts around 4/4.15pm) and getting food near the theatre (there are plenty of places to eat, many of which are wheelchair-accessible and autistic-friendly).

Train: Charing Cross is the nearest mainline station. Not sure what its accessibility is like.

Both times I used the Tube. I stayed with my parents, who live out on the east end of the Central line, so it was easy enough for Mum to drop me at Woodford, which is accessible (no accessible toilet) and it was straight through to TCR, so for me it was a really easy journey.

Whichever form of transport you choose, allow plenty of travel time in case of breakdowns, heavy traffic and unexpected/unplanned events (usually a broken down train on the Tube!)

Ticket collection

On both occasions we collected our tickets at the box office. I didn't ask about having the tickets sent out but if it is easier (and for some people it will be) it's worth asking if that's an option for the Access Rate tickets. If you are looking at the front of the theatre, the box office is round the left-hand side.

Don't leave it until really close to doors-opening to collect your tickets as there will be a queue and the box office is pretty small and only has 3 desks! The first time (both parts in the same day), we picked up our tickets at about 11.30am because I wanted to get it done before it got too busy, and the second time we picked up our tickets at about 2pm (2x evening performances). There were only a couple of other patrons at those times.

There's a small step up into the box office (maximum 3 inches but probably closer to two). I manage steps like that easily but if you are struggling, the staff are happy to help. The desks are all, frustratingly, at able-bodied-standing height. You do need your booking reference to collect your tickets! It only takes a minute or two to do the actual collection bit (not including waiting your turn).

Accessing the theatre

If you're a wheelchair user, you can't access the foyer (2 or 3 steps up from the street, 2 or 3 huge steps down to the auditorium). Instead, there is a side-entrance specifically for those who cannot manage the steps or stand in a queue for a long time, on the same side of the theatre as the box office. You should arrive at the theatre about an hour before the performance is due to start (and they start promptly) and make yourself known to the staff that you have access needs. They do search your bag pretty thoroughly, and they'll do that there, and then they'll contact the access-door staff (via headset) to let them know you're coming. Both times it was smoothly and respectfully carried out.

The access door again has a slight step up to it, about the same as the box office, and there's a ramp. You get to be the first into the theatre! I really enjoyed this because I got to spend a bit more time than my able-bodied counterparts soaking up the architecture, design, etc and it meant I had a bit of quiet time (which, after the manic busyness that is London, was much needed) to decompress before hordes of people flowed in. And also get even more excited than I already was, if that was possible!

You can choose to transfer into your seat from your wheelchair and have your chair stowed, or you can stay in your chair; if the latter, the seats in the wheelchair spaces are removed by the staff. I generally prefer staying in my chair for several reasons:
  • because it's a very comfortable chair 
  • I don't have to worry about the armrests being uncomfortable (my elbows are particularly bad for fibro tender spots)
  • the feel of the fabric on my skin (a lot of theatre seats are covered in a velvety-like fabric that is quite painful to my hypersensitive skin (partly because of the fibro but mainly because of my autistic hypersensitivity to EVERYTHING)
  • I don't have to try to negotiate the long-debated issue that nobody seems to know the correct answer to of which seat does each armrest belong to and how do you decide on who gets to use it between you and the person next to you, especially when it's a complete stranger! 
  • I have a temperamental bladder (always have done - I think it's at least partly due to autism-related anxiety issues - but the fibro and ME have made it a lot worse) and IBS issues that seem to be fibro-related, so being able to get to the loo quickly and suddenly is essential; fortunately I've not had any issues thus far but I'd rather be prepared. If you choose to transfer out of your chair you have to get someone to bring your chair to you to get to the loo, and for me I don't always have that time to spare. By staying in my chair it means I can go to the loo mid-performance if I need to, a) without bothering anyone else; and b) it might make the difference between getting there on time and having an accident.
 For me, staying in my chair means several fewer things I have to worry and stress about and allows me to focus more fully on my enjoyment of the show.

There is quite a steep slope from the back of the auditorium to the wheelchair seats; if I hadn't hung on tightly to my push-rims it could have got a bit messy! If you don't have the strength to control your chair I'd advise your companion helps you with it and if they can't the staff are happy to assist.

The view of the stage is very slightly reduced due to balcony overhang from above, but you don't miss anything other than a bit of the set, as it's the top corner that's blocked.

The accessible toilet is just on your left as you go in through the access entrance. It's up a bit of a steep slope so again, if you have difficulties with slopes, get someone (a companion or staff) to help. It's not ideal but it is a Victorian-era theatre so disabled access wasn't really a thing to consider back then. The toilet itself has decent grab-rails and plenty of room for a standard chair. It should easily accommodate power chairs, too. There's also a decent amount of space for a carer.

If you want to buy a programme (which I did both times because the cast changed in May (mostly - a couple of the actors stayed on in their original roles and a couple moved to bigger roles, such as James Howard, who was originally background and one of the covers for the main adult roles, becoming the main actor for Draco)), they're on sale in the foyer, which you can't access. The staff are happy to get it for you or get one of the programme sellers to come to you. All the merchandise is also in the foyer, which was frustrating (particularly because the second time I thought about getting a hoodie, and I wasn't sure which size to get - Amy ended up buying one so as we're similar proportions I tried hers on!) Again, drinks are in the foyer. As with programmes, staff are happy to get them for you and if I remember correctly ditto for merchandise.

I cannot praise the staff enough; they looked after me so well! They treated me like a competent adult, offered to help but not in a patronising way and didn't ask "Are you sure?" repeatedly like a lot of people do when their offer is declined, made it clear that they were able to help should I require it but didn't push it on me, didn't grab my chair without permission, ensured I knew where the toilet was, checked the wheelchair shelf for the seating area (needed due to the slope of the auditorium) was secure and were generally fantastic. By the time it was departure time after part 2 I wanted to hug them all! I did ensure they knew they'd been fantastic and I still need to write to the theatre to let them know. Because I do think it's important to tell places when they get it right, not just when they get it wrong.

The play itself

I won't go into detail of the contents/story because of #keepthesecrets and this isn't a review of the actual play (acting, characters, plot, etc).

Each section (part 1 first half, part 1 second half, part 2 first half, part 2 second half) is an hour and ten minutes long. I'm glad it's not much longer because of the bladder issues. I can concentrate for hours on something I enjoy and am immersed in and the only things that are capable of interrupting me tend to be bladder and bowels!

Everyone's speech was really clear, which was good.

There is a particular item that is used several times by various characters, and every time it's activated there's a pulse wave that goes out through the theatre. You can actually see the air rippling a little. It was mildly uncomfortable for a few seconds so could potentially cause distressing discomfort for some, although I was able to shake it off quickly because it wasn't too problematic and I was enjoying the play so much.

One creature that's featured in one section of the play makes a high-pitched squeal/shriek and it was a little painful for my hypersensitive ears; I'd anticipated that noise because I'd already read the play and so knew they were coming and because once they appeared I was prepared for it.

The flashes of light for the spells were very bright so I did have to blink several times to clear my vision, but it was very effective in terms of visual effects.

There is, thankfully, no use of strobe lighting in Cursed Child. I don't have epilepsy so it doesn't affect me that way, but it does make me very woozy and disorientated, so that was a big relief! If I remember correctly they did mention when I booked that strobe isn't used.

It's not relevant now (except for any readers who are considering going to see CC on Broadway when it opens there next year) because the cast has changed, but I did find myself recoiling backwards a little on several occasions when Jamie Parker (original Harry; will be reprising the role on Broadway, along with the original actors for Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Scorpius and Albus) went to the more extreme ends of the emotional range (that's actually a good thing because Harry's always been a very emotionally extreme and volatile character)! Just the sheer power and intensity of the emotions. It was fantastic stuff. Jamie Glover (current Harry) plays him a bit more restrained than that so I didn't have that reaction in July.

And Scorpius. I love Scorpius Malfoy! When I originally read the script he struck me as quite Aspie, and both Anthony Boyle (original) and Samuel Blenkin (current) play him that way. I don't know if it's intentional but to be fair, because of the way he comes across just from the text, it makes sense. He reminds me so much of myself! There's one point where he's literally bouncing in excitement because he's having a massive fanboy moment and Blenkin played him as barely restraining himself from full-on handflapping, and Boyle wasn't far off it, either! At some point when I do the posts on possibly-autistic characters, Scorpius is going to be one of them. It's great to see such a likeable possibly-autistic character for once.

I do wish I'd been more decisive and clear about maybe hanging back afterwards to meet the cast (they generally do that at the stage door after the shows). Actually pretty annoyed with myself, but there's nothing I can do about it now.

I highly recommend it. It's spectacular theatre, everything about it was absolutely FANTASTIC, the access is pretty good and the staff do everything they can to maximise your comfort and enjoyment.

Useful information:

Nimax Theatres accessibility (select "Palace")

CC Your questions answered

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