Many theatregoers will be familiar with Alice Ayres from Patrick Marber’s play Closer. The character who goes by that name in the 1997 work has, in fact, pinched it from the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman’s Park in London.
I love the Watts Memorial, and I’m not alone. Lone Twin once made a show, Daniel Hit by a Train, inspired by the plaques to the 53 people who died in the act of trying – and often failing – to save others. The memorial is both a monument to the ridiculously futile and the astonishingly brave. It is touchingly, messily human.
It is also a social document of the risks of Victorian life, the dangers presented by runaway trains, runaway horses and unfenced deep water.
If I’m passing Postman’s Park I always pop in, and the plaque that I look for is the one memorialising Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist, who on January 24, 1863 died at the Prince’s Theatre from the “terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion”.
Costumes catching alight was a risk for those working in Victorian theatres and music hall. It was Sarah Smith I was thinking off when I wrote the character of Ivy, a young music hall artiste horribly scarred by fire, in my novel Rose Campion and the Christmas Mystery.
But, of course, it wasn’t just the performers who suffered unsafe working conditions. Audiences too regularly risked their lives by attending the theatre. In 1613, when a canon fired during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII caused the roof thatch to catch alight, the Globe was razed to the ground. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt.
Patrons at the Theatre Royal in Exeter in 1887 were not so lucky. More than 200 died trying to escape a burning auditorium set alight by scenery ignited by a gas burner. The Exeter tragedy led to the widespread introduction of the iron, or theatre safety curtain.
Today, if you work in a theatre or are attending a performance in one you should feel confident that you will return unscathed. I have sometimes thought that the response to ceiling incidents at London’s Apollo in 2013, and the more recent ceiling fail at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, are informed by a folk memory of those long-ago nights at the theatre when buildings were potential death traps.
Theatres all around the country are now regulated by stringent safety conditions, which cover much more than just fire risk. Even the hundreds of pop-up spaces at the Edinburgh Fringe are covered by a wide range of regulations that ensure the safety of all involved.
So, it is all the more shocking to discover the extent of the safety failings of immersive zombie show Variant 31, which closed last November with performers claiming they are still due unpaid wages.
Camden Council issued a closure recommendation on October 22 following an inspection on October 18, but it was more than a month before an enforcement was issued by which time the production had voluntarily closed. For almost two weeks, even after 15 breaches of safety had been identified by the London Fire Brigade, cast, crew and a paying audience continued to gather in the premises.
Why didn’t producer Dalton Dale close the show? Why was Camden Council so slow to take action?
I’ve previously written about some of the challenges faced by the burgeoning immersive theatre sector, and in particular the harassment inflicted by audiences on performers. Even vastly experienced and highly responsible companies such as Punchdrunk have had to deal with audiences who think that performances that operate within different rubrics from traditional theatre gives them licence to behave badly.
There are always going to be a few bad eggs in the industry – producers who act in bad faith and fleece performers, creatives and audiences. But the checks and balances of the subsidised sector and the fact that the West End producing sector is a small world tend to keep most of the cowboys at bay.
That is much less the case where immersive theatre is concerned. There are some fine companies out there doing good work in safe conditions on many different scales, and paying those involved properly.
In a sector that is almost entirely unsubsidised, there will always be unscrupulous operators who will put profit before safety
But in a sector that is almost entirely unsubsidised, which is seen as potentially lucrative and which takes place in found spaces – some of which may have been empty or semi-derelict for some time – there will always be unscrupulous operators who will put profit before safety.
We now look back in horror at the risks faced by artists and audiences in the Victorian era. But when an experienced, immersive producer, talking off the record, describes what is going on in the immersive theatre field as being much like the early days of the Wild West, it is worrying. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for things to change.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner