When Harry met Sally, the ceiling fell in... literally

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Theatregoers attending Saturday night's performance of When Harry Met Sally, the hit film now transformed into a West End stage show, might have thought they knew the climax that lay ahead of them.

Theatregoers attending Saturday night's performance of When Harry Met Sally, the hit film now transformed into a West End stage show, might have thought they knew the climax that lay ahead of them.

But as the play entered its final minutes at the Theatre Royal, on London's Haymarket, members of the audience, who had paid up to £40 for a seat in one of the capital's most historic venues, suddenly found they were watching a new drama unfold before their eyes ­ or rather, above their heads.

A grand chandelier suspended over the audience of 700 had slipped four feet from its bearings, dislodging chunks of the plaster ceiling which rained down on patrons below.

Pandemonium broke out, according to one witness, and the star of the show, Luke Perry, quickly left the stage to help evacuate the stalls. Up above, the chandelier ­ complete with dancing nymphs and 2,000 lead crystals ­ was hanging precariously from a safety rope.

Fifteen people needed treatment for minor cuts, bruises and shock. The stars of the show ­ Perry, a mainstay of the 1990s US television show Beverly Hills 90210, and Alyson Hannigan, a regular in Buffy the Vampire Slayer ­ were unharmed. The theatre will be closed tonight and tomorrow but the management said it expected to resume performances on Wednesday.

The incident raises wider concerns about the safety and future of London's beautiful but ageing theatres. The Theatres Trust, a government-appointed agency, claimed recently that £250m was needed over the next 15 years to maintain and restore the 40 main commercial West End theatres. Thirty-three are listed as buildings of special architectural interest and all but two were built before the Second World War.

The state of Britain's playhouses was highlighted last October when part of the stage at the Edwardian-era Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham collapsed during a performance of The Sound of Music, injuring more than 20 people.

Although theatres require regular and costly maintenance, the amount spent on improvements last year was only £3m, according to the Theatres Trust. The cost of a night out in the West End, however, has never been higher. As well as tickets costing as much as £50 for certain productions, the price of a night out, including transport, child care and food, sets back the average audience member by an additional £53.77, according to the Arts Council.

The cost of renovation has been used to justify the level of ticket prices. But Saturday night's events have led to renewed calls for more help. Sam West, the actor and son of Prunella Scales and Timothy West, said the incident should serve as a "wake-up call" for the Government. West called for restoration of West End theatres to be financed by Government rather than theatregoers.

"It was a freak accident at the Theatre Royal," he said. "But the Theatres Trust has launched a campaign for £17m a year to be spent in West End theatres. It's unrealistic to expect the theatres to fund all this and I think it is totally wrong to put that additional cost on the price of a ticket as they are already extremely overpriced. Given the amount of money that the Government makes in VAT from theatres, if it is serious about treating them as jewels in the nation's crown, it should fund refurbishment."

However, Kevin Wallace, the co-producer of the pending West End production of Lord of the Rings, believes that theatres are already starting to improve. "I find it is satisfactory working in West End theatres as everyone works within the context of the building," he said. "We have beautiful theatres in the city and you identify the requirements of the production to suit the building."

For the many actors, producers and agents who have worked at the Theatre Royal, the chandelier's collapse was an unexpected but unnerving "freak accident". The 18th-century theatre, with its distinct Corinthian façade, has long had a rigorous maintenance programme.

Unlike some of its historic counterparts, it is said to have lavatories that are always immaculate and the finer details of the structure are frequently restored. In a £1.3m facelift 10 years ago 25 gilders applied 2,500 books of 24-carat gold leaf to surfaces. Artwork on the ceiling was restored, new hand-block wallpaper was hung and carpets were replaced.

"I have never in all my years in the West End known anything like this to happen before," said Sue Hyman, a theatre publicist who has worked in the West End for more than 25 years. "It is one of the most beautiful theatres and it is beautifully maintained," she said. "There are stringent Health and Safety Executive checks pretty much every week. It is extremely unusual."

Carl Hamilton, who was at Saturday's performance, said the show was reaching its denouement at about 10pm when he felt bits of plaster falling from the ceiling. "Maybe one or two square metres of plaster had fallen and I could see lots of wood. It was a large chandelier and everyone was looking concerned that it might fall. I turned around and I saw Luke standing about three or four rows from the front. He was obviously quite concerned to get members of the audience out, as were the rest of the cast.

"He was very gallant and the rest of them conducted themselves brilliantly. It was a great performance and it's a shame it had to end this way."

Preliminary investigationswere under way yesterday and a Health and Safety Executive investigation is expected this week. The company that owns the theatre, Louis I MichaelsLtd, declined to comment.