الأحد. نوفمبر 17th, 2019

What does the Piccadilly ceiling collapse mean for London theatre?

After two incidents in six years, visitors may need reassurance before they return to the West End

Michael Billington

Firefighters outside the Piccadilly theatre after it was evacuated when part of its ceiling crashed down into the auditorium during a performance of Death of a Salesman

 The Piccadilly theatre was evacuated when part of its ceiling collapsed into the auditorium during a performance of Death of a Salesman. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Don’t clap too hard: it’s a very old building,” says Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. His words acquire an ominous ring in the light of this week’s incident at London’s Piccadilly theatre and an even more horrific case six years ago at the Apollo.

Osborne was suggesting that a decaying music hall was an apt metaphor for a declining post-Suez Britain. Do the incidents at the Piccadilly and the Apollo offer an equally potent sign that the supposedly glittering West End theatre is inwardly crumbling?

Everyone I have spoken to, including a theatre designer and a senior technician, is keen to play down the idea. They insist that it is wrong to draw parallels between the two most recent disasters. For a start, there is a difference in scale. At the Piccadilly on Wednesday night, during a performance of Death of a Salesman, six people were treated for injuries, four of whom were taken to hospital. At the Apollo in 2013, in the midst of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 76 people were treated, 58 of whom were taken to hospital. “The miracle is that what happened at the Apollo wasn’t infinitely worse,” said one technician.

I was also repeatedly told that there was a difference in kind between the two incidents.

As far as we know, the incident at the Piccadilly (built in 1928) was caused by collapsing plasterboard. What occurred at the Apollo (built in 1901) involved a fibrous plaster ceiling: one typically “composed of materials susceptible to damage from water ingress, vibration, impact, overload and age”. I take those words from detailed advice to theatre-owners by the Association of British Theatre Technicians, published in the wake of the Apollo disaster and which you can find on their website under Guidance Note 20.

The Apollo, people tell me, was “a warning call” for the whole of London theatre. But has it genuinely woken theatre-owners up to their duty to protect workers and the public? In some cases, yes. The one owner I know moderately well is Cameron Mackintosh, who has eight West End theatres, has reputedly invested £200m in his properties and takes a fastidious interest in every aspect of them.

 “I love old buildings,” he once told me. “If I hadn’t been a theatre producer, I’d have been an interfering architect.” At the time, he was obsessed with the re-opened Victoria Palace and, on another occasion, proudly showed me the improved ladies’ loos at the Noel Coward. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who owns seven theatres, is currently spending £45m on a renovation of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which brings the total he has invested in his theatres in the last decade to £100m.

All this is comforting. But big questions still remain. The most obvious is what actually happened at the Piccadilly on Wednesday night and whether it has any connection with the fact that the area around the theatre is boarded up. I was also reminded that while London’s main theatre-owners – not only Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber but ATG, who own 10 theatres including the Piccadilly and Nimax, who own six including the Apollo – have serious money to spend on their West End properties, there may be nothing like this investment in the big Victorian touring theatres. Is there any sign that the wake-up call has extended to the regions?

What really staggers me, however, is that no one is standing up to speak for the West End theatre to offer the public information and reassurance. The image of the London theatre has been badly sullied by the incidents at the Piccadilly and the Apollo. If you make enough enquiries, people will tell you that lessons have been learned from the disaster six years ago. But how would the public know? What guarantee do they have, when they buy an expensive ticket, that their safety is part of the contract? Why are there no indications of how often, and on what dates, inspections of the buildings have been carried out? How do they know where the money from the Restoration Levy, now included in the price of a ticket, is being spent?

The Society of London Theatre, which represents the producers and managers, has so far remained grimly silent on this week’s events. No figurehead has emerged to tell us that radical improvements have been made to fibrous plaster ceilings and that you are not taking undue risk when you buy a theatre ticket. London theatre loves to slap itself on the back and tell us how wonderful it is, as we shall doubtless see at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in two weeks’ time. What we need is less gush and more grit, less huckstering and more hard fact, if the public is not to think that a night out in the West End is a potential hazard to life and limb.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/08/piccadilly-theatre-apollo-incidents-london-west-end-meaning

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