Last Thursday should have been a triumphant night of celebration in the West End theatre with the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre. Instead, it ended in disaster when – at the nearby Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue – part of the ceiling collapsed on the audience, injuring more than 80 people.
Back in September of this year, the Aldwych had itself suffered its own incident of debris falling from the proscenium arch during a matinee performance of Top Hat that saw the performance cancelled, but with limited damage and mercifully no injuries.
Aside from theatres burning down (and one thankfully has to go back sometime to find the last recorded incident of this), ceiling collapses rate a close second in terms of theatre disasters; certainly during the past four decades there have been a few notable incidents of debris falls from auditorium ceilings.
At the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2004 during the run of When Harry Met Sally, a performance was stopped and the auditorium evacuated when some pieces of ceiling fell off onto the audience, injuring 13 people. At the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1973, the collapse of its ceiling (while the auditorium was empty) saw its then-current tenant the musical Hair end its run abruptly and the theatre undergo a period of closure for significant repairs.
Similarly, in New York in 1986 part of the ceiling of the Murray Hill Theatre fell on audience members; as a result, the city overhauled its building safety inspection procedures of all ceilings in theatres and movie houses built before 1938.
The Apollo Theatre’s accident will naturally raise questions about the safety of our West End theatres? While an incident such as this can cause these anxieties to be brought to the surface, it is important to keep this in perspective.
Theatres around the West End – and indeed the world – successfully and safely operate and host audiences on a nightly basis and these incidents are mercifully rare. However, the pictures in the news of shocked audience members bandaged and wheeled out on stretchers being published and broadcast around the world cannot but cause one to stop and be reminded that these are old and historic buildings that are put under considerable demand week in, week out.
The Apollo Theatre itself was built in 1901. These theatres have seen numerous incoming and exiting productions, some with increased heavy mechanics as stage technology has evolved. Alongside this, while these theatres have proudly stood for many years on the roads and avenue they occupy, much building work has happened around them – all of which can thus raises questions regarding structural concern.
It is here where we might – as a result of the Apollo Theatre accident – see enhanced measures brought in for current building inspections and possibly also further rigid specific regulations for theatres alongside higher insurance premiums for theatre landlords.
In the case of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both its producers, the National Theatre and its landlords, Nimax Theatres, will be carrying comprehensive insurance. The loss of a hit show will be a significant blow, but it is the distressing images of the injured and the timing of this accident happening in the busy pre-Christmas run up that will make it stick in the memory.
The Apollo Theatre will not forget, but will recover from last night’s incident, and the West End theatre industry is very resilient.
One of the reasons for this resilience is due to the passionate and skilled people who proudly make up this industry and perhaps none more so than the heroic front of house staff of the Apollo Theatre and its adjoining theatres who assisted in Thursday night’s emergency.
When we go to the theatre, we often forget that those men and women who make up the theatre’s ushering and front of house teams that sell us our programme or interval ice cream do this alongside of their primary responsibility, which is for our safety. That point was clearly demonstrated last week and served to reiterate the exemplary work undertaken by these people who work in theatres everywhere.
Ushers and front of house staff are some of the most important people in the theatre industry with a vital role to play which must never be underestimated or undervalued.