The fall-out from the Apollo ceiling’s partial fall-in

Cameron Mackintosh. Photo: Eliza Power.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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The dreadful events at the Apollo Theatre last month, when some 80 theatregoers were injured when part of the ceiling collapsed mid-performance for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, have cast a lingering shadow over the state of the West End, or at least its aging theatre stock.

This isn't, of course, the first time a ceiling has partially collapsed in the West End – the original run of Hair in the West End was famously cut short when a similar thing happened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in July 20, 1973, forcing that production to shut after 1,998 performances. And ten years ago, 15 theatregoers were injured at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, during a performance of When Harry Met Sally, when its ceiling partly collapsed.

As the Daily Telegraph reported at the time

Plaster started to fall at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, which prompted parts of the audience to run for safety. The chandelier fell 4ft from the ceiling and was held in place by its safety rope, but it led to the dislodging of part of the ceiling which fell into the auditorium's dress circle and stalls.

In both the cases at the Haymarket and Apollo, there's some comfort to be taken from the fact that no one was killed. But it once again shines a (possibly unwelcome) spotlight on the fact that these buildings are in need of serious work if they're to continue to be used as much as they are now.

The Haymarket's management have duly invested a lot of money and pride in maintaining and refurbishing one of London's most beautiful theatres.

Back in 2003, a report by the Theatres Trust called Act Now! Modernising London's West End concluded that some £250m was needed to be spent on the them to save them for future generations. Peter Longman, then the chairman of the Theatres Trust,  commented at the time,

We all know what's wrong with these theatres - nearly all of them are 100 years old and they reflect the conventions of a very different era.

And as Cameron Mackintosh once said to me,

Most of the theatres haven't had much cash put into them since they were built. They're all 100 years old, and you know that if you left your own home for 100 years, you'd soon be cold, miserable and wet, so why should it be any different for them?

Mackintosh, of course, has been a noble and notable West End exception, to the rule of what Apollo owner Nica Burns herself characterised, in an interview with the Theatres magazine in 2012, as years of "benign neglect". "Water attacks the building from above and below," she also explained, and on the night of the Apollo ceiling collapse, heavy rainfall and thunder immediately preceded it.

Nick Starr, the National Theatre's executive director who was the lead producer of the transfer of the National's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time to the theatre, was last week quoted in The Guardian saying,

Our own experts have reported that there is such strong correlation between one particular thunderclap and the ceiling collapse that it would be too co-incidental for them not to be causally linked.

But now the ceiling collapse is directly related to another announcement made last week: that Curious Incident would not, after all, re-open at the Apollo, but would go on hiatus until it could re-open instead at the Gielgud next door in June. According to The Guardian, Nica Burns was "blindsided" by the decision, and a spokesperson said she was "devastated and heartbroken."

Cameron Mackintosh, Curious Incident's new landlord, told the Evening Standard last week that when he heard the news,

My first thought was ‘poor Nica’ because she’s a friend and that rare thing in London, a person who loves the theatre and who doesn’t run her theatres for gain. I know that any money she makes she ploughs back into the buildings. The difference between NIca and me is I have the money to do what I want and I love the buildings.

Nobody doubts Nica's commitment to her buildings, and I've regularly had her proudly showing me off the improvements she's made along the way, like the new toilets she's installed in the Duchess stalls or the facade to the Apollo. (Cameron Mackintosh has also, over the years, been equally keen to show off his buildings to me).

But clearly the needs of these buildings outstrips the money necessarily available to spend. The Theatres Trust in 2003 suggested a radical answer: according to Peter Longman at the time, it was "no longer realistic to expect owners to put things right without outside assistance. Theatres all over the rest of the country, and the subsidised ones in London, have been receiving help for modernisation programmes over many years."

But Mackintosh, for his part, last week told the Standard it was not right to expect public grants."All these theatres were built for private entrepreneurs, and that’s where they belong, rather than with hedge funds.”

As Nick Curtis, who interviewed him, notes,

I take this as a sly dig at Ambassador Theatre Group, the largest owner of theatres in London and nationwide, which sold to a private equity company last October for £350 million.

But if private equity have invested heavily in the chain, I assume they can now afford to put some more investment in the way of funding the theatres to be fit for purpose (and presumably to protect their own investments in them).

And as Mackintosh notes,

It isn’t true to say that these theatres are 100 years old and have lost their sense of purpose. With thought and with a decent — not astronomical  — amount of money you can reinvent these buildings and make them belong in the 21st century.

The gauntlet has been thrown down, and since every single theatre now collects a restoration fee from every single member of the paying public that attends, there are some funds available to do so. But there's zero accountability to how and even if it is spent.

As I wrote in a feature for The Stage last year,

We don't exactly see these improvements very visibly. Some, of course, may be backstage and hidden from view, but it doesn't look like the £10m being collected every year is going very far. Theatres already charge producers rent and contra that includes maintenance, so routine refurbishments should be covered already.  There's a fundamental lack of transparency or accountability for the money collected.

And I proposed a modest solution

Given that the restoration levy charged is ring-fenced from the royalty pool that creative people share in on every ticket sold, it makes it even more important that their beneficiaries make it clear exactly how they are spending them. Perhaps it is time for a separate body like SOLT to act like the Heritage Lottery Fund to collect the funds directly from the box offices, and then distribute them to the theatres on application as they are needed.

The time to do this is more pressing than ever now.