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JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and The Future of Access in Theatre

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How the socially distanced Regent's Park Open Air Theatre adapts for disabled patrons

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and The Future of Access in Theatre
Kerrie Nicholson at
Jesus Christ Superstar

I fell really hard for the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar during its original 2016 run. My first trip was a Saturday matinee, and I spent the Sunday sending emails enquiring about availability for when I could return, and had said return trip booked by the Tuesday. I eventually saw it three times at Regent's Park, then once more when the production transferred to the Barbican.

So, I was delighted to see that a new concert-style staging was being mounted once more at the Open Air, a much-needed chink of light amid the bleak times for the industry brought about by the pandemic. I'm at the point where I will do everything asked of me if it means the industry can get back to some sense of normality and I can get back to supporting theatre the way all us fans love to, and the folks I admire both onstage and off can get back to their jobs.

And yet my experience of returning to a theatre as a disabled fan amidst the "new normal" did get me thinking about what the future of access might look like - the good and that which could be improved.

Let's start off with booking. I envy patrons who have no access needs their ease of booking online so much; usually, we have to ring up, and if the dedicated access line is busy, it's even more stressful because our seating options are already limited! A handful of theatres do allow disabled patrons to book online, and I was overjoyed to see Regent's Park were trialling an Access scheme to enable us to do the same. I found the whole process really easy - it was simply a matter of entering your details and then uploading proof of my eligibility. The theatre acknowledged receipt of this really quickly and I was free to go ahead and book for my chosen date.

Unfortunately, booking the second visit (I was never just going to book one outing to this show!) went a little less smoothly. I logged in as usual, selected the seats I wanted and found that the access rate wasn't being applied to the tickets. Confused, I sent an email to the box office explaining the issue and the date I was looking at and was informed that they were removing the pilot scheme due to restrictions of the socially distanced seating plan. My chosen seats were reserved, however, so I could call up the team to process the booking and pay for the tickets. When I did, I was charged full price for them, and when I queried this in light of my needs, was informed I could only use the discount once.

Just wanting to have that second trip in the diary, I let this go. And to the team's credit, I believe this was a genuine misunderstanding - they later emailed me acknowledging the error with an apology and refunded me the difference. I'm very grateful and hugely impressed by the speed with which they communicated.

Speaking of communication, they also sent an email ahead of the visit explaining the new measures in place, and what was expected of us (face coverings, maintaining social distancing, use of a one-way system inside the venue, consenting to temperature checks, not to come if you've experienced Covid symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has), and they also have a dedicated information page covering all the details on their website. Knowing all of this in advance was really reassuring and it meant the whole experience generally went really smoothly when we arrived.

I say "generally", because there were a few gripes I had: the main one being that everyone needing my particular entrance (step free) were let through and told to wait for the auditorium to open and left alone. So much time passed that I panicked when I could hear the bell that I usually believe means "Everyone needs to be seated now, we're going to start the show" more than once. It didn't, of course, but I did feel a bit forgotten about - though I understand the staff are adjusting to a new system and were nothing but polite.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and The Future of Access in Theatre
The Jesus Christ Superstar cast board

Being among the last group in was also a bit of a pain for me just in terms of having to drive my wheelchair along the row to my space with lots of feet around; of course, I never want to hurt anyone, and I think it might be safer if access patrons were let in first, if possible. I had a similar anxiety about the one-way system, as everyone ups and leaves at the same time and you're left to get out on your own, but I know I'll become more comfortable with that as time goes on.

The show itself was absolutely incredible. I feared that the atmosphere would be lost given the reduced audience, but if anything, it was made more palpable because everyone was so happy to be there and enjoying live performance again!

What the company have achieved in such a short time is nothing short of astonishing; the social distancing required meant it was like watching the show for the first time all over again and finding new things to enjoy. There were actually moments I preferred in this staging (like the very end and Judas's death) because they were just so cleverly and powerfully reimagined in light of the new guidelines. I'll never forgot how the crowd cheered at the climax of the overture either.

I also loved their approach to casting: double casting Jesus, Judas and Mary, without set dates being announced. I wish all the big West End musicals would follow this lead - it would allow performers flexibility and the space to ensure they can remain in the best shape they want to be to deliver a great performance, and save the potential audience angst if a particular performer is not on for whatever reason.

On Sunday, I had Pepe Nufrio as Jesus, Maimuna Memon as Mary and, to my utter delight (literally, I cheered and punched the air when I saw the cast board, much to the amusement of the staff member nearby), Ricardo Afonso as Judas, who I had longed to see again from the minute he opened his mouth in the role at the Barbican. You'd be spoilt whatever combination you end up with though - the level of talent across the board is phenomenal.

I ended the afternoon emotionally spent in the best way possible, and, more importantly, I felt hope that not only can the industry I love adapt, but that there's a hunger for live performance - and that's incredibly heartening. I cannot wait to do it all again in a few weeks' time.

Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 27 September

Read our review here!

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From This Author Kerrie Nicholson