Wednesday, 20 April 2016

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go…

Initially lured by the phenomenon that is Michael Pennington, simply being King Lear, I now know that I will be returning to the marvel that is Northampton’s Royal & Derngate many times in the future – purely because of its very own distinct fascination and delight. In some ways similar to the RSC – two auditoriums (but with the added advantage of an 88-seat cinema; as well as the TOP-like Underground spaces) linked by cunning foyer architecture and captivating facilities – there are some major differences (principally derived from my local’s ‘national’ – if not international – status and greater heft) that I feel the RSC could learn from (especially the ‘vibe’ that comes from being in a good regional arts space – itself part of the town’s burgeoning Cultural Quarter).

Returning to Stratford-upon-Avon just over five years ago, when we had decided to make our home here, we were drawn into The Courtyard Theatre (as it was then) not just by our last-minute tickets for King Learanother unforgettable production: starring Greg Hicks, Kathryn Hunter and Tunji Kasim – but also by the friendly atmosphere of its café, and its substantial heaps of freshly-cooked food. In fact, we ate there most days.

Although now resurrected as The Other Place: bringing back, for me, happy memories of its previous ‘tin hut’ existence… – and it is, admittedly, early days for the refreshed venue… – I feel it currently lacks both the length and breadth of menu, and natural, unforced informality, that made the previous almost-greasy-spoon (a complimentary tag) so welcoming. (And where you could easily find yourself comfortably sat next to the luminaries you were about to see on stage.)

At the R&D, The Wicked Way Café comes so much closer to this ideal of a relaxed and relaxing theatrical eatery – especially with its range of extremely-good-value, quirkily-named, scrumptious Pieminister Pies! – as it combines the best casual bits of the Riverside Café, Rooftop Restaurant and new Susie’s café bar (which, despite my grumbles, has great service, and is a splendid place to sit for a couple of hours, watching the world go by, whilst pretending to author blog posts, fuelled by some of the best coffee and cake in town). Crucially, the R&D also has its own equivalent of Stratford’s famous Dirty DuckBar Hygge! (No theatre or concert hall is complete without such a place of respite!)

Michael Pennington (King Lear), centre; and company – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

Returning, therefore, yesterday evening, to see the all-important captioned performance of King Lear (“lured”, this time, by every single member of the company (as well as the prospect of a toothsome dinner…)) – knowing, as always, that there would be elements which had evolved since the preview we saw; as well as moments of magic that I had not entirely absorbed… – I decided that I should review the R&D’s access provision as well as the play itself (especially as I find myself relying increasingly on such amenities).

But I nearly fell at the first hurdle… – the theatre’s website indicated that I could not book a table in the café without the use of a telephone! (As much use to me as a fashion magazine; or a margarine cafetière!) However, the @RoyalDerngate Twitter bods could not have been more obliging: responding to my initial query with due thought and attention – even though it was quite late on Monday evening….

So it was that I woke up, yesterday morning, to find that they had gone out of their way to reserve one for me; and asking “if we can help with anything else”; as well as wishing me “a wonderful evening”! [This, to me, demonstrates two things: firstly, that access policies are only useful if they are implemented by knowledgeable and kind-hearted employees; and, secondly, that the tightly-knit team at Royal & Derngate – as you will also see in a couple of paragraphs’ reading… – are compassionate angels devoted to customer care beyond the remit of any rules or regulations! (Thank you.)] Asking for the table booked in the name of “The Bard of Tysoe” was therefore only a tad inglorious!

By the way, I hope that this proves that the R&D is not in any way ‘backward’ with regards to technology: I just do not think my request (and requirement) – and the resulting facility – to book things online, or by email, is as common as it should be (yet). For instance, the venue has its own iOS app (something, again, that the RSC should take onboard) – which, although, essentially, a neatly-packaged mobile version of its comprehensive website, was obviously designed effectively to fulfil both purposes. As it stashes your user details, as well as your order history (so you can check where you sat, previously), it is an incredibly handy tool for planning and booking a visit.

Michael Pennington (King Lear) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

This impressive customer service and friendliness extends in other directions, too. I fully appreciate the RSC Press Office’s initial reluctance to deal – on an equal footing with the mainstream media, anyway – with the exploding plethora of theatrical bloggers (like myself); but the R&D marketing team (especially Amanda Howson, Press Manager, and Box Office Manager, Erica Mynard) were almost tripping over themselves to supply information and photographs for my first review; and their swift replies to emails and tweets was genuinely refreshing. [This is not to besmirch the RSC – I simply sense a little reluctance from them (some of which may be caused by that titanic “heft”…). Now I have finally made it past first base, for instance, they are happy to email me photographs – on request. And yet I feel am still on probation: as I do not quite receive the privilege of, say, Michael Billington: who will have complete, direct access to the RSC’s comprehensive image database and press archive, etc..]

Anyway… back to my deaf and disabled assessment. Physical access is just as easy as at the RSC, despite the structural complexity of the site. There are many lifts and gently-sloping walkways (although some of these also feature short runs of steps: so look before you limp…). Entry to the building is level; and there are plenty of allocated (free) parking spaces for Blue Badge holders in the Albion Place surface car park, adjacent to the main entrance. (More information on all this can be found here.) The only place I really struggled – with my habitual wobble and walking stick – was the gentle climb up through the stalls, after the performance. But this is more to do with my own infirmity; and the deleterious effect of being seated, entranced, for prolonged periods.

Although I have not made use of it – as I have struggled with such systems in the past, and therefore much prefer to rely on induction loops (because of their direct interaction with my hearing aids and Streamer) – the venue provides a “Sennheiser Infra-red Enhanced Hearing System”: which is best accessed from certain seats, because of its directionality. I accept that, as my hearing continues to fade, I may well have to resort to this at some point – although I found the acoustics at the front of the stalls to be extremely clear.

Here, the RSC – with its loop(s) passing under every single seat – wins hands-down (ears up?!) for me; although I do understand that such high-granularity systems (where every punter receives an identical top-notch signal, wherever they sit) are incredibly expensive to design and install.

In November 2015 Royal & Derngate achieved Level 3 in the Space to Change campaign. This campaign enabled the general public to suggest the installation of much-needed facilities within various organisations.

Having booked online, I have not had to deal with the box office staff directly – but I noticed the requisite loop sign on the counter (as well as at the various “bars situated throughout the building”); and it is clear that they take their duties in this direction extremely seriously. (They also have a dedicated Text Relay number, and a “new mobile service” – although I am not quite clear how this latter resource functions.)

Apart from not being able to book my table as I would have wished, you will be pleased to learn that I had no problems, in person, ordering my ‘green goddess’ open top pie with ‘groovy gravy’ and ‘skin on fries’: as those serving me had obviously noticed the habitual international deaf symbol badge I wear – or had been forewarned! (A nice touch with your pre-theatre meal is being able to order a programme to be brought to your table – a great way to pass the time, if you are on your own.)

[As an aside… the RSC carefully stores details of its patrons’ disabilities and related requirements in their box office database (although I am such a ‘frequent flyer’ that many of the staff recognize me; and know that they may have to gently raise their voices, or face me so I can attempt to lip-read). There is therefore always an implicit recognition and understanding of where I need to sit to view any captions; and unforced acceptance of my preference for left-hand end seats, because of my neurological deficits. The system also keeps tabs on which sections – even which rows – of both theatres ‘work’ best for me. Not only that, but I am consistently asked (confidentially) on building tours, etc. about my ability to manage steps; how the guide or presenter can aid my understanding – usually by ensuring I am sat next to them; although they also seem willing to wear the tiny microphone I carry with me (when I actually remember) that interfaces with my hearing aids – and they are extremely generous with their assistance at all times; and with permanent, authentic smiles! To cap it all, the RSC’s Access tickets – no matter where you sit – are remarkable value at just £16: a price which a regional venue like the R&D cannot possibly match. (This is not a complaint; merely a fact of life. Small theatres simply do not receive the funding, or huge numbers of visitors, of such ‘national’ institutions as the RSC.)]

The Royal & Derngate (and all its constituent parts) is therefore a great facility – disabled, or not… – although, for me, it is, sadly, not that easy a place to get to. It is, however, definitely worth the tribulation – in this case, you could say, arriving (and staying) is a much better thing than travelling painfully…. [My review of the actual performance – with superb captions… – will follow a little later…]

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