Dangerous stairs bring the curtain down on theatre at cutting edge

Richard Hall
Friday 08 April 2011 00:00 BST

The Victorian era is not generally regarded as one that greatly contributed to the progress of British theatre – and now the architecture of the age has scuppered a modern production.

A theatre in north-west London which has spent the past two years stirring critics with challenging productions could be forced to close – not because of a lack of funding or meagre audiences, but because the height of the steps on its Victorian staircases do not match strict council regulations.

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn said yesterday that its production of the only Tennessee Williams play yet unperformed, A Cavalier for Milady, had been cancelled until further notice. The play was one of two world premieres staged at the theatre, the first being I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark, to mark Williams's centenary.

The Independent has since learned that A Cavalier for Milady is to be cancelled indefinitely, with the possibility of both plays being transferred to the Players Theatre in the West End in autumn.

The theatre's artistic director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, spent much of yesterday in meetings with Brent Council in an attempt to hammer out a solution. He said: "The issue is the current building regulations don't like the height and depth of the steps going up to the theatre...Each step is too high and too short.

"In this time of cuts to the arts, considering the amount of work we've done in two years and our achievements, to have a building regulation stand in the way of this movement is very disheartening," he said.

The 56-seat theatre sits above a pub of the same name. Both the main staircase leading to the theatre and the one leading to the emergency exit were built in Victorian times, and were designed to take up the minimum amount of space inside the tavern. It is likely the only solution to the problem of the Victorian stairwells is to undertake a major renovation of the venue.

Such a project would be daunting for any theatre, but is particularly tricky for the Tavern. As the only full-time fringe playhouse in the country not to receive any funding, its only revenues come from the box office. But Mr Spreadbury-Maher said space, not money, was the major obstacle to finding a solution.

"Money has never been an issue. We never received funding, yet look at the work we have produced. The issue is a lack of space. If we have to put a compliant staircase in this theatre we will have two stairwells coming in on the middle of the stage. Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending a Staircase is a good play, but I'm not sure we can run it til Doomsday," he said.

While the Victorian steps may be what initially tripped up the theatre, one industry source claimed that the series of events which led to its possible closure began with a complaint from the family of a customer who had fainted due to the heat.

This was partially corroborated by Brent Council, who said they had received a "tip-off" on 29 March from a person raising a "serious number of concerns" about the venue. The council subsequently investigated the incident and found it did not have the requisite licence.

The council said in a statement: "An inspector visited the premises and observed multiple issues, noting that the premises did not have an entertainment licence.

This can be addressed by temporary orders, but a further visit [on Thursday] confirmed very serious issues relating to public safety – that is why it's been closed. These include inadequate escape routes, poor seating and an unsuitable staircase. In the event of fire it would be hard to get out, putting lives at risk."

The statement said: "We have told the theatre company that Brent is happy to work with them now and in future should they carry out improvements to the premises and reopen with the correct licence."

Mr Spreadbury-Maher said the council had been constrained by regulations which would hold it responsible should anything happen.

The theatre has achieved both commercial and critical success since it opened in January 2009. Its production of Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème won an Olivier Award this year. Mr Spreadbury-Maher, an Australian, was awarded the Fringe Report Award in 2010 for Best Artistic Director in recognition of the Tavern's success.

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