A “localised water leak” caused part of the ceiling at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End to collapse mid-performance at Death of a Salesman last week, prompting the closure of the venue for four days.
Plasterboard fell from the ceiling in the grand circle about 25 minutes into the show on November 6, with five people suffering minor injuries.
An urgent investigation was launched by Westminster City Council following the incident. An internal investigation by owner Ambassador Theatre Group concluded that a leak caused a section of plasterboard to come away. Westminster City Council has now also concluded its investigation and passed the theatre as safe to operate.
Audience member Lowri Jenkins was sat in the grand circle during the November 6 performance and reported hearing a “constant drip”, with some audiences moving because drips were falling on them.
“We were looking right at it and you could see a darkening in the ceiling – people were starting to murmur and ask what it was. A couple of people moved out of the way as they were getting dripped on. Suddenly the puddle quadrupled in size and a crack appeared in the ceiling,” she said, adding: “Then the ceiling started to fall in and people jumped out of the way and started running for the doors.”
The entire theatre was evacuated, with emergency services on the scene within five minutes, eyewitnesses said.
Following the incident – which came six years after a partial ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre in 2013 – the theatre was closed and scratch performances of Death of a Salesman, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, took place at the Young Vic on November 8 and 9.
Performances at the Piccadilly Theatre resumed on November 11, but with the area affected by the leak closed off.
Ambassador Theatre Group
Theatre owner and operator ATG issued a statement shortly before 11.30pm on November 6, the night of the incident, in which it confirmed that five people had sustained minor injuries. It said it took the “safety and security of our audiences extremely seriously”.
The following day, Westminster City Council launched an urgent investigation into the cause of the incident, and ATG confirmed that the November 7 performance of Death of a Salesman had been cancelled. Later that day, it was announced that the Young Vic would be hosting scratch performances of the play on November 8 and 9, while the theatre remained closed.
On November 8, ATG issued further updates on the situation, revealing that a localised leak was to blame for the ceiling collapse, claiming this was the result of Westminster City Council’s investigation, and that it had been deemed safe to reopen on November 11.
However, it later clarified the cause had been discovered through its own internal investigation but said it was “confident” the council would “deem the theatre safe for use and grant permission to reopen to the public on Monday, provided the affected area is covered and off-limits until repairs are completed”.
The Young Vic
On November 7, the day after the incident, the Young Vic announced its decision to host three scratch performances of the play, which had originated at the venue.
In a statement following these, artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and executive director Despina Tsatsas said: “Pulling off three scratch performances at the Young Vic over the weekend was nothing short of miraculous. On Thursday morning, when we first discussed the idea that perhaps the show could be brought home to the Young Vic for a few scratch performances, our main house was a construction site.
“By Friday afternoon, we had an auditorium and a superb front-of-house team in place, minimal props, costume and set pieces brought over from the Piccadilly Theatre, and the full company, led by the phenomenal Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke, who were all committed to continuing to tell this extraordinary story.”
After the initial incident, Equity assistant general secretary Matt Hood said on Twitter that its members should not be working in “unsafe venues”. He added that “this is not negotiable” and that the union would “meet with theatre managers as a priority to ensure our members’ welfare”.
A further statement from Hilary Hadley, head of live performance, said the union was in contact with cast members and the general manager to discuss the implications of the incident.
BECTU said it was seeking a joint meeting with its sister unions and ATG to discuss the welfare of its members, and that the latter would be paid by ATG while the venue remained closed.
Society of London Theatre
The membership body issued a statement on November 7, in which it praised the theatre’s staff for its handling of the “isolated incident”.
“We were immensely impressed with the quick and professional actions of staff and emergency services at the Piccadilly Theatre. More than 1,000 theatregoers were safely and calmly evacuated from the theatre by well-trained staff, who have been commended by many people attending the performance,” it said in a statement.
SOLT added that the safety of audiences and staff was a “key priority for all West End theatre operators” and said venues were supported with “detailed guidance on building inspections, maintenance and certification”.