Apollo theatre collapse: London’s West End theatres were simply not built for the 21st century

The incident at the Apollo pulls into dramatic focus a long-known fact

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The Independent Online

The 720 adults and children in the audience had gone to the Apollo Theatre to be enchanted and entertained by a show which has won seven Olivier awards and receives standing ovations nightly. But they never got to applaud. Instead they were terrified and traumatised when the theatre’s ceiling collapsed.

The photographs of the aftermath – stalls strewn with giant hunks of plaster, red seats grey with choking clouds of dust, audience members with bloodied heads being ferried from foyer to hospital on double-decker buses – are surreal and scary. Eighty-eight people were injured, seven seriously. Thankfully no one died, which is the very least one might hope for from a night at the theatre.

This was, in one sense, a freak event. An unusually heavy thunderstorm just before curtain up may have played a part. The 112-year-old building had passed its safety checks; its certificates were up to date. Like all West End theatres, the Apollo is a beautiful, historic, impossibly impractical building. Olivier, Richardson and Redgrave have trodden its boards. Peter O’Toole played Jeffrey Bernard there; Mark Rylance wowed in Jerusalem. The disaster – coming at a potentially financially ruinous time of year – will provoke a deal of sentimentality in Theatreland. Already the doughty cry has gone up: the show must go on!

Must it? The incident at the Apollo pulls into dramatic focus a fact that has been known for a long time: that many West End theatres are not fit for purpose. Though the theatres are like a much-loved old ham who fluffs his lines and misses his cues, the public forgives them much because they reek of past glories and that air of chaotic penury we tend to favour in artists. Last week, as most weeks, I went to a show. As I waited 10 minutes – squeezed into an aisle – to leave at the end, a thought arose about what would happen if there were a fire. I ignored it. Just like I tried to ignore the large white mouse skittering around the stage at another show last month. Throw in the foyer crush, the don’t-even-bother bars, the back-breaking seats, the inadequate toilet facilities and the ruinous programmes, and a night out in the West End looks less a luxury than an ordeal. And yet it comes with a luxury price tag attached.

Those underneath the falling plaster on Thursday night may have paid up to £85 for their ticket, plus a booking fee, plus a £1 restoration levy “to assist essential work of preservation”. It would be churlish to argue against that fee; nobody wants to see these gorgeous palaces of culture fall down. But these theatres are old; they are not basket cases. Their ceilings may be crumbling but their box offices are sound. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a major hit at the subsidised National Theatre, has played to almost 200,000 people since opening in the West End in March. This is boom time. When the arts come under fire, theatre professionals are rightly swift to point out that the West End is a powerhouse, boosting the UK economy to the tune of £2bn a year. There is money, so where is it all going?

Not on the roof, clearly. These theatres were not built to last a century, or to contend with traffic, jet planes and the demands of modern stage technology, but they are still standing and welcoming 32,000 visitors a night. To refurbish one to 21st-century standards could cost anything from £5m to £10m. What happened at the Apollo is a sad and shocking event, but it is also a wake-up call. Budgets must now be redrawn and spending on restoration prioritised. If private investors lack the resources, then the Government must step in to assist on a thorough overhaul. In the meantime, the West End must pull out all the stops to reassure audiences that their theatres are not just entertaining but also pleasant places to spend an evening. The show must go on, yes, but not at the cost of public safety.


We’re all judges of courtroom art

At this festive time of year, spare a thought for the poor courtroom artist. The procession of famous faces pouting in and out of the law courts – one minute Nigella Lawson, the next Tulisa Contostavlos – means that their speedy sketches have been coming under increasing scrutiny. A couple of weeks ago, there was the one who went a bit overboard on Nigella’s curves and then the other one who didn’t quite capture her haughty beauty to everyone’s tastes. Yesterday one chalky likeness of Tulisa was declared on social media to be more Lily Savage than N-Dubz.

All of sudden, the world has an opinion on their work, having seen the subjects in a thousand paparazzi shots before. There is something noble, though, about these hasty, honest portraits in an era of image control. The courtroom artists draw what they see, in the moment: no meddling publicists or airbrushes allowed. These industrious portraitists are now living on borrowed time. When cameras are inevitably brought into courtrooms to capture defendants’ every last twitch in HD, I think we might miss their wonky, human charm.


Take a plunge with Facebook

If selfie is the word of 2013, then an unfortunate tourist in Melbourne should probably be named the person of 2013, for embodying 21st-century self-absorption and tech  obsession in one easy, made-to-go-viral story. The tourist was enjoying a stroll along St Kilda’s pier but was so wrapped up in checking Facebook on her phone that she failed to spot the end of it and plunged into the water. The police were called and had to rescue her in a speedboat.

“She still had her mobile phone in her hand,” said senior constable Dean Kelly, who also warned people to pay more attention “when using social media around water”.

Because this is 2013, and we need these kind of warnings now. Roll on 2014.


London’s bubble balloons out of control

The most expensive home in the world is in London, on Carlton House Terrace to be specific. The Grade I-listed property, estimated at £250m, tops a list of the highest priced houses for sale and is joined in the top 10 by two other properties in the city – one on Kensington Palace Gardens (£100m) and the other on Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead (£65m). I don’t know which numbers they are, but I am guessing for that price you must get the whole street.

Such sums of money are beyond the imagination of most normal humans, but the top 10 arrives in the same week as a survey which predicts that UK house prices will rise by 8 per cent (11 per cent in London) in 2014. The main culprit, says the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, is a shortage of homes coming on to the market. The main victims are the young and the poor. Help to Buy is one idea but Help to Build more affordable homes is what is needed next.

Twitter: @alicevjones