Apollo disaster needs action and reflection

The Apollo Theatre
Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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The disaster at the Apollo theatre has focused attention once more on the West End’s ageing theatre stock.

In more normal situations, venue owners have been happy to emphasise the need for money to be invested in improvements – preferably with a contribution from the public purse.

Understandably they will not on this occasion welcome the fact that theatre safety has now become a matter of intense public scrutiny.

Rightly so, but first some caveats:

Until a proper investigation is complete we should avoid simplistic assumptions that old theatre = public danger. Westminster City Council was right of course to respond immediately with a check on procedures but, as SOLT pointed out, all major Theatreland venues have up to date safety inspections and certificates.

By the usual standards these theatres do pass muster every bit as much as a new-build office would. That appears to include the Apollo itself. And at the present moment it cannot be ruled out that what happened may have borne no relation to the age of the building (112 years, should anyone be wondering).

Whatever the causes, the disaster does underline another aspect of safety. Namely the need to take seriously the need for good practices and emergency procedures. Anecdotal evidence does at least suggest that staff and management’s response was fast and effective.

It is undeniable that an Edwardian theatre will present greater challenges for an evacuation than, say, the Barbican. Such challenges are likely to impinge more upon management’s time and priorities if local authorities insist on new procedures to ensure safety.

Doubtless Nimax and its rivals will rise to the challenges. It tends to be forgotten that theatre ownership is one of those things like the purchase of football teams and newspapers; there are easier ways to make money and such activities involve a sense of vocation as well as commercial nous. Whatever else one may say about West End owners, they are passionate about their houses.

And it should not be forgotten that we British are enthusiastic about our theatrical heritage. Sometimes it is a hard act balancing the need to preserve a Matcham jewel (though he didn’t design the Apollo) with the need for audiences to enjoy and professionals to present a performance. So regardless of the cause of this one significant incident – which we must leave to expert judgement – we might remind ourselves that preservation does warrant investment.

That’s something we can all take a part in, in the shape of contributing to restoration funds encouraged by managements willing to be transparent. In the meantime our sympathy at The Stage to all those injured and good speed to the Apollo investigations and reconstruction.