After it was announced that Six the Musical would not return to the Arts Theatre but the Vaudeville, Disabled fans were left devastated due to its lack of accessibility. Outreach Officer, Naomi investigates.
Fans of beloved cult-turned-smash hit musical Six were overjoyed when its return to the West End was finally announced a couple of weeks ago, but that joy was tempered by the news that it would be at the infamously less than perfectly accessible Vaudeville Theatre, which is owned by Nimax Theatres. Disability activist, writer and photographer Shona Louise first drew attention to the theatre’s exclusion of wheelchair users, with a tweet on 14 July, regarding the Vaudeville’s lack of accessible toilets and that access to the theatre itself was via a light stair climber that could only accommodate small, light wheelchairs, meaning power wheelchair users were not able to see shows there at all.
Many other disabled people and disability allies voiced their dismay, with West End playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm (whose hit Emilia played at the Vaudeville in 2019) tweeting her support, detailing the accessibility issues she and her team had experienced during their time there and the solutions Nimax had implemented, including an option to purchase a ramp which Nimax allegedly explored but did not act upon.
After Louise’s initial tweet, the producers of Six tweeted a statement:
‘Since confirming our transfer to the Vaudeville Theatre we have been discussing and continue to discuss how we can ensure access for everyone to our show. That has always been the Ambition for Six. We, and Nimax, are fully committed to ensuring this can happen and are very happy to engage with anyone who can help work together with us to make that possible.’
This statement was not well-received, coming across as inadequate, containing no real change, and asking disabled people to do the emotional labour of helping the company learn how to be accessible. I spoke to Louise, and she told me how, as a disabled person who’s both a fan of theatre and works as a theatre photographer, is well used to inaccessibility.
“It’s something I call out a lot. When it came to Six the Musical announcing its move to the inaccessible Vaudeville Theatre, I knew that this was an issue that couldn’t go unnoticed. Any show moving to an inaccessible venue is disappointing, but for Six it felt doubly painful. The show promotes inclusivity and diverse representation, so it felt completely against everything they stand for to move into a theatre that so many simply can’t get inside. On top of this, I’ve had conversations with Six previously about their access [which led to] some really positive conversations with the producers and creative team, but it seems little of that has been remembered.”
Louise pointed out to me that the access issues at the Vaudeville have been known about for years, with potential solutions explored (as Malcolm discussed on Twitter) but not implemented. “They’ve been told about potential solutions before, so I cannot understand why nothing has been done”, she said. “Now we’re left in a situation where Six opens in just a couple of months’ time, meaning that even if they commit to a solution, it’s unlikely to be in place for the show’s opening. I have supported the show since almost its beginning, having watched it nearly 50 times. It breaks my heart that it’s likely myself and many others will be unable to watch it again anytime soon.”
Disability access has long been an issue within the theatre world, with a 2019 study by Vocal Eyes finding that over a quarter of UK theatre websites failed to list access information, and that less than 30% of theatres listed at least one access service (such as a captioned performance or relaxed performance) for an upcoming performance. Whilst some UK theatres are listed buildings and struggle to make the changes necessary to be accessible, there is a general and far-reaching feeling within the disabled theatre community and amongst disabled theatregoers that disabled voices are simply not being heard, and that venues are unwilling to do the work necessary to find practical solutions.
However, there is hope. Companies like Graeae and those theatres who are partnered with disabled theatre company Ramps on the Moon put access at their heart, and other theatres like the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Manchester regularly appear in lists of accessible venues. Many smaller and/or regional theatres have made a genuine commitment to accessibility which does ultimately leave the West End in the shade.
On 24 July, Louise shared a statement on her Twitter account, revealing she’d had a two-hour conversation with Nimax co-owner Nica Burns which had left her feeling “more reassured” and that Nimax would begin testing a new stair climber which could accommodate bigger and heavier wheelchairs, that very week.
While Six and Nimax’s response was slow to come, and initially disappointing, the news that change is occurring and meaningful conversations continuing is a positive sign. In the meantime, Disabled Six fans continue to watch and hope.
There is a range of information on accessible theatre performances in London, including a complete guide to venues access. Visit the Official London Theatre website.