It was while I was in the pub last night after a rehearsal that the news came through that the ceiling had collapsed in The Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue during a packed performance of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, with many people injured. This would be truly terrifying for any theatregoer and my thoughts are with all members of the audience, injured or not. It is a miracle that no one was killed and I hope it stays that way. When you go to the theatre, you expect a certain level of safety – especially given the price of a West End ticket.
There has been much speculation over the cause of this and I think it is best to allow investigators to get on with their job of assessing the building before we cast any aspersions. In the words of Shakespeare “truth will out”. But I suspect that the owners of ageing buildings (including other West End theatres) will be calling in structural engineers in order to make sure that they are indeed fit for purpose. I would hope that any theatre that does find structural issues would be brave enough to close its doors for a few weeks to remedy the problem rather than invite a paying public in for 8 shows a week and hope for the best. It is a tragedy for something like this to happen at all, but it would be nothing short of corporate foolishness if something similar were to happen again in a few days/weeks/months due to penny pinching and/or complacency. If legislation only requires structural integrity to be checked every so often in buildings of a certain age, then perhaps that legislation needs to be changed – those buildings aren’t getting any younger.
At my theatre we run 9 productions a year for 9 nights each, 9 cinema nights, a festival and a youth theatre show or two; our schedule is tightly packed and has to run like clockwork. Over the summer we have to close completely in order for routine maintenance to be carried out which involves many things, including electrical testing, taking down the whole lighting rig for cleaning and testing and no doubt lots of other things which I am relatively unaware of (we are lucky enough to have a revolve in the stage, which seems to need some sort of maintenance after every show its used in). But all these things are necessary in order to keep us legal and keep us safe. We are routinely asked by members of the public why we don’t hire the theatre out to others “when we’re not using it” – but the honest truth is that we’re always using it. In order to do things safely and properly, there has to be a level of ‘downtime’ which paying audiences don’t see, during which these vital works are carried out. And I do wonder how the big West End theatres fit in that downtime when they’re running 8 shows a week for years and years on end in the same building. I would hope that the weekday daytimes and Sundays are for precisely that.
But praise must go to the Front Of House staff at the Apollo Theatre who, by all accounts, dealt with the situation tremendously. They would’ve been the first to see the utter devastation and have to attend to people in severe distress while waiting for the emergency services to arrive. They too will need care and support as they come to terms with last night’s events and I hope that Nimax Theatres will arrange any counselling that may be necessary. Praise must also go to the other theatres in the vicinity which opened their foyer doors to take care of the walking wounded – it must’ve been quite a shock to their FOH teams too.