There probably aren’t many conclusions to be drawn about the state of the West End’s historic theatre stock from the incident at the Piccadilly Theatre last week. From the information available, it looks like an isolated case and, though terrifying for those involved, the kind of accident that could have happened in any public or private building.
While the much more serious incident at the Apollo six years ago led to the introduction of major safety guidelines and checks, which have been undertaken by theatres across the UK since, it’s unlikely we’ll see major changes off the back of this latest episode. From accounts of those present, front-of-house staff appear to have acted swiftly and effectively. Meanwhile, from the details we have, it sounds like this was a freak accident rather than a weakness that is endemic to theatres of a certain age, as was the case at the Apollo.
That doesn’t mean lessons can’t be learned. The first is that the much more serious events at the Apollo in December 2013 have not been forgotten by the general public or the mainstream press. They have left a permanent scar on the public perception of the West End and its ageing infrastructure. Any future incidents will be seen through the prism of what happened at the Apollo.
The second, as David Benedict observes in his column this week, is that there is still a lot of public mistrust of restoration levies charged on top of high ticket prices. Theatre owners have not won the argument that these charges are necessary and fair. In fact, they haven’t even really bothered to make an argument.
In both cases, transparency is the answer. West End theatre operators are notoriously opaque about how they run their buildings, but expectations of corporate transparency have changed in the 21st century and theatre managements need to change with them. Theatres should publicise the numerous safety checks they already undertake on their buildings. They should also publish annual figures detailing how much they raise via the restoration levy, how it is spent and how it qualifies as restoration rather than maintenance.
I’m sure that in many cases this will show that theatre managements are having to dip into their own pockets to supplement the figures raised from audiences. If so, this will help dispel public mistrust and could even have the added benefit of helping strengthen arguments – advanced in Richard Howle’s well-argued piece – that historic theatres should be in line for reduced business rates.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith