Apollo Theatre collapse – Boris Johnson urges people to keep visiting West End
London mayor tries to reassure public after theatre ceiling falls in, injuring more than 80 during performance.
London’s theatres are “open for business”, Boris Johnson said as he encouraged theatregoers to continue visiting the West End despite the collapse of the Apollo’s ceiling that injured more than 80 people.
With West End theatre generating around £2bn for the economy there have been swift moves to reassure the public in the wake of the accident on Thursday evening.
“I would stress that, although it is too early to say what caused this collapse, and whilst this was a serious incident, London’s world-renowned Theatreland is open for business and thousands of theatregoers will rightly be out and about tonight and over the weekend,” said Johnson.
Westminster council, which is the health and safety authority for West End theatres, said it would be checking all historic theatres’ consents and licensing on Friday “because we want to reassure theatregoers that theatres are safe to attend”.
The Apollo theatre dates back to 1901 but it is not among the capital’s oldest theatres, some of which were built in the 18th century.
Theatreland was also at pains to assuage any public fears. The Society of London Theatres, with which Westminster council said it would be liaising, said that at a meeting on Friday morning “all major theatre owners have confirmed that their safety inspections and certificates are up to date, and will co-operate fully with the authorities to reassure the public that their theatres are safe. All other London theatres remain open for business today and in the coming weeks.” It said every theatre “undergoes rigorous safety checks and inspections by independent experts”.
Mhora Samuel, director of the Theatres Trust, the national advisory public body for theatres, said: “Occurrences of theatre ceiling and plasterwork collapse are extremely rare. The public should be reassured that theatre owners carry out regular plasterwork inspections and maintenance regimes to ensure the safety of their buildings.”
But building experts said plaster ceilings were often poorly maintained by cash-strapped theatre owners – although not so much in central London – despite being one of the main safety risks.
Geoff Wilkinson, managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants and a former local authority inspector responsible for issuing theatres with entertainment licences, said: “The theatre industry struggles financially. Money is tight. During a period of recession there is an increased pressure on any funds they do have, which is one of the reasons you have an annual re-inspection to ensure that certain core safety features are being maintained, including the ceiling.”
He expressed surprise at what had happened. “It is very rare to have incidents of this kind in central London,” he said. “The Westminster licensing team are usually very good at spotting these things.” He speculated that water from a leaky roof could have built up over several weeks at the Apollo. “If it was a sudden downpour, there would have been reports of a gush of water coming down,” he said.
As well as annual inspections to secure an entertainment licence, owners must also produce a specialist certificate on the safety of the ceiling every three to five years, he said. “Perhaps a more frequent inspection regime would be of benefit, but that would add to costs,” he added.
David Harrison, managing director of a plaster restoration firm, Hayles and Howe, which was involved in the restoration of the Royal Opera House, said the key threats to theatre ceilings were “neglect, accidental damage, damp and decay”.
In an article for the Building Conservation Directory he writes: “The roof of a theatre is usually the last place that money is spent, despite being the most obvious source of water penetration. If left for long enough, a slipped tile or a blocked gutter can lead to rampant dry rot, costing millions of pounds to rectify.”
More than 32,000 people attend theatres in central London every night. In 2010, Visit Britain said that in the previous year £1.9bn had been spent by tourists in the capital on trips involving the theatre, paying out for restaurants, hotels and other activities.