On Thursday 19th December, parts of the roof and/or ceiling of the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End fell into the auditorium, injuring over 70 people, about a tenth of them seriously. This worrying incident naturally caused attention to be shone upon the state of West End theatres generally, some of which are over a century and a half old.
It was remarked in some quarters that, as long ago as 2004, Andrew Lloyd Webber – who then owned the Apollo – had suggested in a speech to the House of Lords that some of London’s listed theatres should be demolished rather than restored, this not long after fifteen people had been injured by plaster falling from the ceiling of the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
The impact of West End theatre upon the UK economy is vast. The scale can be extrapolated from the fact that – on the latest figures available – the West End theatres make half a £billion profit per annum.
Some ‘unhelpful’ reporters and critics are asking why more of these profits do not go into restorations or improvements, especially when the three biggest owners – Nimax (current owners of the Apollo), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mackintosh Delfont Group – all include a £1.50 ‘restoration levy’ in their ticket prices.
Inevitably, in the aftermath of last week’s near-tragedy, the big battalions of the central London scene were rolled out to calm any public fears about the safety of West End theatres and assure everyone that it was a case of both ‘business as usual’ and/or ‘the show must go on’ at this crucially important (i.e. festive) time of the year.
On Friday afternoon, the day after the Apollo Theatre incident, I listening with both interest and incredulity as Tory MP Mark Field, of the Cities of London and Westminster, and Philippa Rowe, head of Westminster City Council, along with someone whose name (shamefully) I did not catch who has written extensively upon the West End theatre, had a joint interview/discussion with a presenter on Radio Five Live.
I was astonished at their tone and approach.
Whilst giving a passing wink to the seriousness of the Apollo incident – albeit that Rowe, whilst repeating again and again that, as a priority, immediate checks were of course being run upon all 52 West End theatres, admitted that as yet they hadn’t the slightest clue what had caused the Apollo ceiling to fall in (“It would be quite wrong of me to speculate at this stage …”) – the uniform line peddled by all three was that there was no need to panic.
Instead, they assured the viewers, all West End theatre ticket holders could rest easy in their beds because the chances of tons of plaster, brick and roofing landing upon their heads that evening, or even at all over Christmas and New Year, were next to nil.
Mark Field MP even went so far as virtually to suggest that this was all a sensationalist story cooked up by the media, which had deliberately chosen not to report the Apollo incident responsibly.
The message, seemingly, was loud and clear.
No matter that officially, as yet, nobody had the slightest idea what had caused the Apollo incident, the important thing was that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of the important year-round British tradition whereby our esteemed West End theatre owners hoover up all the lovely money outlayed by our theatre-goers and tourists.
Happily, none of the above will affect me.
I gave up going to the West End theatre in mid-2004, around about the time that I worked out just what poor ‘value for money’ the West End theatre experience actually is.
If you add together the cramped seats, the crushes in the gangways, the difficulties of getting liquid or other refreshments at half-time (and the cost of them!), plus the cost of a decent pair of tickets and a ‘theatre meal’ bite to eat before or afterwards … and finally the pain and suffering involved in getting into town and then back out again … any reasonable person could hardly come to any other conclusion.
What shall we say – £300 (minimum) for an evening out in the West End, for the right to be treated like cattle?
And I haven’t even mentioned the quality of the fare on offer.
Frankly, even when there are world-famous ‘names’ starring in productions that make it to London, too often – I’d suggest at least three times in five as a base to begin from – a West End evening’s overall experience is distinctly under-whelming. Compared to say staying at home and watching a television documentary, or reading a book.
Those who run and administer London’s West End theatre should stop mindlessly defending the status quo and – literally – put their house(s) in order.