The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic: accessibility on the big stage

I hadn’t seen a play in a big theatre in years, and I’d never been to the Old Vic either, so when my wife Joanna told me she had booked tickets for us to see ‘The Winslow Boy’ there last Thursday evening, I was really looking forward to it. There was to be live captioning by STAGETEXT and a good hearing loop too, so they were also big reasons why I wanted to see it. I had been to see ‘Macbeth’ at the smaller Trafalgar Studios a few weeks before, so I wanted to see how live captioning would work on a big stage.

When I arrived with Joanna in the Old Vic foyer, I was very impressed by the beautiful, classic elegance of the theatre, which was originally built in 1818. Huge chandeliers were dangling from the ceiling and as we walked up the grand staircase towards the stalls, there were photos on the walls of very famous actors who had appeared there over the decades, such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. It was like the wall of fame. American actor Kevin Spacey has been the artistic director there since 2003.

Our tickets were booked in the Lilian Baylis circle, which, we were told, was closed, when we arrived. This would have been right at the top and quite a distance from the stage, so luckily, we were upgraded to better seats further down in the dress circle with a much better view of the stage and the captioning, which was positioned at both sides of the stage. This turned out to be a real stroke of luck because I think I would have had difficulty seeing the captioning from higher up.

The play is set just before the First World War in 1913-14, with all the action taking place in the elegant drawing room of the posh Winslow family home. It is based on a true story of a father’s fight to clear his son’s name when he is expelled from Naval College after being wrongly convicted of theft. Driven by a passionate belief in fighting for justice whatever it takes, the father hires the best lawyer in the country to fight the case and they take on the establishment together. Despite immense personal cost to his own health and family sacrifices, the father refuses to be beaten. Amidst a media frenzy, the case is even debated in the House of Commons and the boy’s name is eventually cleared.

At first I was slightly distracted by the stiff formality of the setting and the upper middle-class dialogue of the period. As the plot unfolded though, I found it increasingly gripping and engaging. I realised that the story has as much relevance today as it did then. It is simply about a father desperately fighting for justice against an impenetrable establishment, which we can definitely still relate to today. I thought that Henry Goodman acted the part of the father, Arthur Winslow, brilliantly, as did Peter Sullivan as the aloof cold-fish lawyer Sir Peter Morton and Naomi Frederick as the suffragette daughter Catherine Winslow.

As the actors moved across the stage during the performance, I thought that it was a really good idea to have the STAGETEXT captioning on both sides of the stage, as my eyes moved from one side to the other to follow the actors. I also noticed that there were quite a few elderly people in the audience and I thought about how having live captioning at theatre performances is a great idea for elderly people with hearing loss, although it makes the theatre more accessible for people of all ages, regardless of whether you have a hearing loss or not.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this play at the Old Vic and I’m really looking forward to seeing my next theatre performance with live captioning. After not going to the theatre at all after losing most of my hearing about three years ago, I can’t believe that I’ve actually seen more plays this year than I have been to football matches! I never saw myself as a culture vulture.

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