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The state of London West End Theatres and elsewhere

Theatre News March 25th 2014I read this headline on the stage website this afternoon, regarding the ceiling collapse and the subsequent investigation and recommendations – to date.

Theatre owners should ensure regular expert surveys are carried out to better understand the materials used in their buildings, national advisory body the Theatres Trust has said.” The Stage

To be honest, I actually feel quite angry that such words as ‘should’ are used in this context. People’s lives are potentially at risk here. “Theatre owners MUST ensure regular expert surveys are carried out…

The full text from the Theatres Trust is as follows:

The Theatres Trust has issued a response to Westminster City Council’s statement today in relation to the cause of the ceiling collapse at the Apollo theatre on 19 December 2013

Mhora Samuel, Director of The Theatres Trust, the national advisory body for theatres said “Theatres are constructed in very, many, different ways and use different materials and methods to fix plasterwork ceilings to their roof trusses. The important question is whether plaster-coated hessian wadding is the only material being used to hold up a ceiling as many have also been strengthened with the use of steel ties.”

If a building is one of 300 Victorian and Edwardian theatres in the UK or 40 in the West End, it is very likely to have these strengthened ties and its ceiling will be secure. Clearly though owners need to understand the state of the building materials being used to hold up their plasterwork ceilings. The Theatres Trust would like to see regular surveys and inspections (my bold – sorry but “would like to see!), from above the ceiling being undertaken by both plaster experts and by structural engineers. These could include new surveying methods that could provide better understanding of the state of the materials and physical access.”

The public should be assured that theatres are regularly maintained and inspected. All theatre owners and operators are very aware of their responsibility to look after the safety of the public. Like all building materials though, hessian has a finite life and just because a theatre is historic doesn’t mean that only hessian can be used to support its ceiling. If the public is to continue to appreciate the treasured fibrous plaster ceilings of our historic theatres we need to consider introducing more structurally sustainable solutions.”

Hopefully the relevant governing body(ies) for safety standards, AND the owners of all theatres in the UK will ensure that an urgent priority is given to inspections to ensure that the type of ‘accident’ at the Apollo Theatre does not happen again. And sorry to say but clearly the previous inspections were not thorough enough.

Yesterday the BBC reported ” ceiling collapse at London’s Apollo Theatre has been put down to weak and old materials, the BBC has learned.” Seventy-six people were injured when part of the roof came down during a performance of The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time in December.”

The local authority is still carrying out an investigation but has sent a letter to historic theatres in the West End saying the hessian wadding – a type of sackcloth – mixed into the plaster of Paris had become progressively weak.

The council’s health and safety team is recommending that all suspended ornate ceilings are thoroughly inspected as a matter of urgency. BBC Report

The sooner this investigation is completed the better, but if need be then tough measures MUST be undertaken.

Tuesday 25th March 2014


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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