Theatre nights

Theatre facilities for the disabled have significantly improved but challenges remain

On January 15th this year I reached a personal milestone. On that evening I saw my hundredth theatre production since moving to London a decade ago. In case you're wondering, the play was In a Dark Dark House at the Almeida. I've attended so many compelling, spellbinding pieces of theatre it would take far too long to mention them all. But the ones which particularly stick in my mind include The History Boys at the National, An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse and Arcadia at the Duke of York.

I regret the fact I've never kept a diary. I'm not self disciplined enough and I don't have time to write regular entries. But I do keep a list of all the plays I see in London. I meticulously record the production, the theatre, the date, the names of any famous actors involved and who I went with. Anyone perusing this list would soon realise that I have eclectic tastes - there's Waiting for Godot and Acorn Antiques: The Musical, A Streetcar Named Desire and Noises Off, Death of a Salesman and Billy Elliot. After 10 years of regular theatre-going, I'm proud to say I've seen the work of all the most celebrated playwrights - George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, JB Priestley, William Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard and Oscar Wilde to name but a few.

London theatres vary in the quality of their facilities for disabled people. Some of them are very wheelchair friendly including the National, the Almeida, the Donmar and the Hampstead. But others only give wheelchair users a restricted view of the stage because the wheelchair spaces are at the sides of the auditorium. And there have been occasions when I haven't been able to see the stage at all. This summer I went to a performance where the barrier in front of me was simply too high for me to look over. I just had to guess what action was taking place on stage.

Since the arrival of the Disability Discrimination Act, I've certainly noticed an improvement in access to London theatres. I remember my delight when I discovered that a theatre which used to be out of bounds to wheelchair users had managed to install a stair lift. (This stair lift does give its passengers a disconcerting jerk as it goes round a bend, but I'm happy to put up with that).

On the other hand, there are still at least two West End theatres which are completely inaccessible to wheelchair users who need to stay in their wheelchair. The problem is that many London theatres are in old buildings and this makes it harder and more expensive to adapt them. Nevertheless, I'm a great believer in the principle that where there's a will, there's a way, and I'm hopeful that one day I will be able to access any theatre production in the capital.

During the last decade I've developed a theory called Brignell's Law. This states that, of all the theatregoers attending a performance, the tallest person or the person with the largest hairdo is bound to be sitting in the seat in front of mine. Unfortunately, not only am I relatively short but my wheelchair is also quite small. In most circumstances this is an advantage as it makes the wheelchair more manoeuvrable. But in a theatre it does mean there's more chance my view of the stage will be impeded by someone else's head.

In certain theatres, where there are three or four wheelchair spaces in a row, there is a tactic one can employ to alleviate this predicament. If the wheelchair spaces are not fully booked, I position my wheelchair so that my head is between any two of the seats in the row in front. This helps to maximise the proportion of the stage I can see. But there are other theatres where there's nothing I can do except pray that the seats in front of mine remain unsold. The theatres I love most are those with tiered seating (like the Hampstead) or where there is no seat in front of the wheelchair space (like the Cottesloe at the National) because then I know I'm guaranteed a clear view. One of the reasons I enjoyed the Norman Conquests trilogy at the Old Vic so much was because it was done "in the round" and I was in the front row.

Watching a top-class theatre performance can be a magical experience and I don't blame my fellow theatregoers for wanting to give a standing ovation if the performance merits one. But I must admit, my heart does sink when I see a member of the audience get to their feet. Once one person has stood up, others begin to follow their example. Soon the standing ovation is spreading like a contagious disease through the audience. There comes a point when I know it's only a matter of time before the person in front of me decides to stand up too. And when this finally happens, the result is certain - I can say goodbye to my view. In my version of Utopia, audiences would still show their appreciation of outstanding performances but it would not be done via a standing ovation.

When I go to the theatre I'm accompanied by my PA (my carer) and obviously I'm responsible for paying for her ticket. West End theatres often try to help by offering wheelchair users two tickets at half price. This sounds attractive, but the problem is that the wheelchair spaces are often in the most expensive ticket category. For example, if a theatre sells tickets for £15, £30 and £45, the chances are that the wheelchair space and PA's seat will be £22 50 each (half of £45). This means that I still end up paying £45. If I were not disabled, I would have the option of spending £15 or £30 instead.

Some theatres, however, recognize the unfairness of this ticketing arrangement and have a different system. For as long as I've been living in London, the National Theatre has sold tickets for wheelchair users and their PAs at £10 or £12 each. When I saw Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket I was offered tickets for significantly less than 50% of the most expensive ticket price. And in the last few weeks, the Royal Opera house has begun to give a free ticket to PAs whilst also giving a substantial discount to wheelchair users. It means that in future the person accompanying me will have the delight of sitting in a seat that normally costs more than £50 for absolutely nothing.

But there is a London theatre with an even more radical ticket system. Not only do they provide free tickets to PAs but they have also introduced a policy of allowing wheelchair users to choose how much they spend on their ticket. When I booked up for their latest play I was given a list of the various ticket prices and asked how much I would normally consider spending on a ticket. Although I admit there was a part of me that wanted to say the cheapest, I opted for one of the mid-range prices. It didn't seem ethical to exploit this theatre's enlightened stance. I do hope other disabled people don't take unfair advantage of this theatre's decision to give disabled people the same range of choices as other theatregoers.

While most London theatres provide money off for wheelchair users and their PAs, there remains the issue of the friend's ticket. As I've mentioned already, the wheelchair space is usually found among the most expensive seats in the auditorium. Even if my PA and I get discounted tickets, any friend who comes with me and wants to sit with me is faced with paying full price for a top price seat. What we normally end up doing is buying a cheaper seat elsewhere in the theatre and sitting apart. Sometimes my PA sits in the separate seat and sometimes my friends do. In one sense this doesn't matter because you can't talk during a performance anyway and we meet up during the interval. But it does feel unfair that in some theatres the only way a wheelchair user can sit with her friends is if those friends are able and willing to spend a fortune on theatre tickets.

With such generous discounts available, it's perhaps not surprising that some theatres and cinemas have begun to ask for proof of your disability. The Royal Opera House keeps a database of customers with access needs and requires anyone wanting a discount to send them a copy of their disability benefits entitlement letter. And cinemas will tell you to obtain a photo ID card from the Cinema Exhibitors Association, if you expect a free ticket for your PA.

On one occasion, when I booked theatre tickets over the phone, the box office asked me to bring my blue badge with me when I came to collect my tickets. This struck me as a bizarre request. I was coming by taxi but what would I have done if I had been driving a car? Didn't they realise that a blue badge is meant to be left clearly on display when a car is parked in a disabled parking bay? How did they expect my blue badge to be in two different places at the same time?

Sometimes this practice of checking your disability can lead to surreal situations. A few months ago I went to a certain cultural institution in London and asked for the free ticket for my PA. The man on the ticket desk asked me, "Do you regard yourself as disabled?". Now, bear in mind that I'm a wheelchair user and paralysed from the neck down. I'm about as visibly disabled as it's possible to get. Why on earth was this man bothering to ask me? Was he simply following orders and querying anyone who dared to ask for a disability-related discount? Or was he trying to be funny? On reflection, I think it was the former rather than the latter. Still, I had great difficulty keeping a straight face.

I have to say that, apart from the Royal Opera house, most of the places that demand proof of your disability don't enforce their system very strictly. The theatre which told me to bring my blue badge didn't ask to see it in the end. And I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times when cinema staff have asked to see my CEA card. Even when staff have asked to see it this year, none of them has remarked on the fact that it actually expired 18 months ago.

The sad news is that the best perk of being a wheelchair user no longer exists. Back in the 1980s, I used to be able to watch performances of the English National Ballet at the Royal Festival Hall for - wait for it - 70p. Yes, you did read that correctly. 70p. That's less than it cost Russian citizens to see the Kirov at the height of Communism. It must have cost the box office almost as much as that to print off and post the ticket to me. Nowadays, their prices for wheelchair users are still very reasonable but they are more within the range you would expect. The Socialist Republic of the South Bank is fast becoming a distant memory.

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.