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Rat invasions give actors stage fright

Equity to investigate claims of vermin infestations in West End theatres

From the front of house, West End theatres are the epitome of Edwardian splendour. Grand neo-Classical façades, luxurious detailed interiors and a bit too much brass and velvet.

But spare a thought for the actors behind the curtain. There, many are faced with revolting conditions including rat infestations and floods of raw sewage. Now an investigation is to be launched by the actors' union Equity after a series of complaints.

Equity member Tim Walton complained at the union's annual conference that a dressing room at a West End theatre had twice been flooded with sewage in the two years that he had worked there, and that 50 male cast and crew members had been forced to share a single toilet.

"We don't have enough toilets, we don't have enough showers, sometimes when we do have enough they are in an awful condition," he said. "There is no ventilation. We have rat infestations. We are professionals, we are good at what we do and I think it is about time that we were treated that way."

According to Mr Walton, the entire cast and band of La Cage aux Folles have been made to share a single lavatory at the Playhouse Theatre. Things are not much better at the Shaftesbury Theatre, where the cast of Hairspray have apparently found rat droppings in their make-up.

James Williams, chief executive of the Theatre of Comedy, which owns and runs the Shaftesbury Theatre, yesterday denied that it had a particular issue with vermin. "All buildings in the West End of London have a problem with mice; it's a fact of life."

That is something Spamalot's Lady of the Lake Hannah Waddingham knows more than most. Once, while being elevated on to the stage at the Palace Theatre, she felt a tickle between her breasts but brushed it off as a nervous spasm. Days later she was followed by a nasty odour only to subsequently find that a mouse had crawled into the lining of her ornate dress and died during her famous diva's lament.

Mr Williams said all theatres were trying to tackle the problem. "I don't know any theatre owner in London who isn't trying to improve the conditions for both theatregoers and staff," he said. "But we cannot close down the theatre to do improvements without huge losses, so we have to have an ongoing programme of improvements while still using them."

David Blyth, operations and building development director of the Ambassador Theatre Group, which runs the Playhouse, told industry paper The Stage that the venue had a total of seven toilets backstage for performers to use. He added: "With regards to all our theatres and their backstage conditions, we have a rolling plan to improve these facilities, but unfortunately we are always going to be constrained by the original size and design of these historic buildings."

In 2003 the Theatres Trust called for £250m to be spent on West End venues if they were to keep pace with public expectations and the needs of both performers and producers. Although many have been improved, Mr Walton claims that a most work has focused on upgrading customer areas, not backstage facilities.