The best news of the week was that not only were mercifully few people injured in last Wednesday’s frightening partial ceiling collapse at ATG’s 1,232-seat Piccadilly Theatre, but that Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s gripping production of Death of a Salesman reopened there on Monday (November 11). There is, however, a serious, long-standing question arising from the happily short-lived disaster.
It was first raised in the Observer as far back as April 2012 by theatre accountant Robert Breckman.
“Whenever you buy a ticket,” he wrote, “you are apparently making an obligatory donation of £1 to the ‘restoration levy’. I say apparently since the theatregoing public has never actually seen any accounts as to how much has been received and how it has been utilised.”
The sum is now £1.50 yet his observation has still not been met with anything approaching an adequate response.
I was reminded of it after reading Richard Howle’s informed and incisive analysis of the situation that Theatreland found itself in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of plasterboard in the Piccadilly’s rear upper circle ceiling.
Of course, a leak could happen in any property, regardless of age. Howle’s article examines the concerns and responsibilities of the custodians of the predominantly Victorian marvels – or, depending on your point of view, outmoded liabilities – that are the West End’s theatres. Understandably, it focuses on the financial burden the owners face in maintaining properties that are, to put it mildly, costly to run.
Beyond the pages of The Stage, all major media outlets began asking variants on: “Are these buildings any longer fit for purpose?” It was more of a statement than a question as BBC Radio 4’s PM producing team put it when calling journalists to appear on air to voice opposing opinions on the matter. Yes, apparently even that, a public safety matter, required so-called balance. “After all, they’re more than 100 years old…”
Fact-check: the Piccadilly was built in 1928 and the part of ceiling in question was put in place just two years ago following the closure of Jersey Boys, when the building was renewed and refurbished, but let’s not allow facts to ruin a good leading question.
With little to go on, everyone raced to link the incident with the more devastating ceiling collapse six years earlier at the Nimax-owned Apollo leaving 76 people injured, seven seriously. In that case, the culprit was ruled to be the wadding ties, made of hessian and plaster of Paris, that were used to lash together timber frames to support the suspended ceiling (in place since the theatre opened in 1901) that caused the disaster.
Complicating the issues of the management of the theatre stock is the fact that the overwhelming majority of West End houses – the Piccadilly not included – are listed buildings. This severely restricts alterations their owners might like to make not only in safety provision but also, say, the understandably oft-requested addition of extra toilets – a concern raised on the PM programme and elsewhere.
Less convincing is the argument that theatres should receive more external financial support in the form of lower business rates to safeguard the properties. Theatre ownership is a profit-making business and providing houses for incoming shows is the part of the business equation where the money is made.
As Howle points out, both Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber have generously poured vast sums of their own money into renovating their many venues. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests they are both spending well in excess of what they are raising in restoration levy, yet there remains no clear, public accounting to prove their largesse.
And, crucially, in other theatre ownership groups where the difference between what is raised and what appears to be being spent is more marginal, it is completely impossible to tell whether and how the full restoration levy is being spent.
Looking at the dowdier West End houses, it seems as though there is an extremely convenient blurring between supposed restoration and actual day-to-day maintenance.
ATG, Howle infers, lacks the benefit of a philanthropic owner. But the company is owned by a private equity company. It cannot plead poverty – especially having recently spent about £12 million buying another theatre, the Ambassadors. If theatre owners want preferential treatment in the form of tax relief to maintain their properties for the nation, they will all have to be a great deal more open about where the levy money is going.
In Breckman’s typically droll and so far unanswered words: “A little transparency would be an advantage.”
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict