Theatre-goers who plunged more than 20ft when the stage collapsed at a Birmingham theatre are hopeful their two-year battle for damages is nearing an end with the beginning today of a criminal case against the production company and the theatre.

More than 30 people were injured, many dressed in nuns' habits or lederhosen, when a makeshift stage gave way during Sing A Long A Sound of Music, at the Alexandra Theatre in September 2003.

The accident happened when people were invited onto the stage, and the victims plunged more than 20ft into the orchestra pit below.

Today Birmingham Magistrates Court will

hear a formal plea from defendants Clear Channel, who own the theatre, and Sing A Long Productions, following charges brought by Birmingham City Council.

Wendy Nixson, solicitor with law firm Irwin Mitchell, acting on behalf of four of the victims, said: "We are optimistic that criminal

proceedings will be satisfactorily concluded and this will lead to a speedy resolution to the civil claims.

"In view of the fact that 100 per cent liability has been admitted, we have already invited the defendants to make a settlement offer to our clients who are most anxious,

more than two years on, to draw a line under this traumatic incident and move on with their lives."

Last month Michelle Cartwright, who was dressed as a nun, received £3,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement after she suffered back and neck injuries when the stage collapsed.

The 40-year-old mother-of-three of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, was awarded the compensation after the producers, Sing A Long Productions admitted liability.

Mrs Cartwright, who was represented by Coley and Tilley solicitors, said: "I sued because we had gone for a night out at the theatre. You expect to have an accident on the road, not at the theatre."