What can we learn from the Apollo theatre’s collapse? Let’s modernise our West End

Everyone will have seen the horrifying scenes this week as a production of The curious incident of the dog in the night-time literally brought the house down. Of course, it wasn’t the production that was to blame, it was the theatre building, as the balcony collapsed injuring 80 audience members.

It was news to everyone that heavy rain and wind could collapse the inside of a theatre. The co-owner of the Apollo is Nica Burns who we’ve recently all been watching on Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals, sagely advising how quickly the fortunes of a show can turn and the unpredictability of whether a show will be a hit or miss.

Burns, who I think is pretty admirable, spending her entire life savings on a theatre and building up a West End empire that compromises the Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and the Duchess. I mean, wow. Someone could have told her that once you buy 4 you can buy a hotel. And actually, that might have been a good idea because the golden goose for these theatres is tourists. Tourists buy the expensive tickets, tourists buy all the merchandise, and probably only see one show. This is particularly noticeable, by the way, when you go and see a show in more than one theatre because the programmes, while not extortionate, do contain identical content. I was a bit irritated when I went to see A Chorus Line and found myself reading exactly the same articles I’d paid for in the Ladykillers programme the week before.

Anyway, there’s another thing that tourist audiences love, and that’s a theatre interior that resembles an intricate golden cake. West End Theatres, like cathedrals, are expected to be ornate and very expensive looking. The Apollo is a grade II listed building and yes, it is beautiful. But unlike churches, theatres don’t tend to have assets that amount to double a country’s national debt to fall back on. To fully refurbish the Apollo, according to the Society of London theatre, would cost between £5m and £10m. The recent levy to raise refurbishment funds across the entire Nimax group of theatres raised just £2.45m.

The Apollo theatre, before the balcony collapsed. Of course, the audience would hopefully be looking the other way, at the stage.

And yes, I like a beautiful old building as much as anyone. But not as much as I love what’s going on on the stage. And here’s the thing, would I prefer the theatre to spend the money on maintaining a century old building, complete with pillars and gold leaf, or would I prefer to see the money spent on employing a splendid cast, building an amazing set, paying a brilliant playwright? That wins for me.

There are 48 UK playhouses are on the Theatres Trust’s at-risk register because they are in extreme disrepair or at risk of demolition.  Let’s just flatten most of them, and build some modern ones. We can just keep a couple for people who want to see theatre as it was seen by the Victorians. I mean, I love The Globe but we only really need the one Elizabethan theatre don’t we? It would be a pain in the arse if they were all like that, we’d have nowhere to put modern plays on.

Mentioning this to my uncle yesterday he objected, saying that the opulent building is “part of the experience of going to the theatre.” But my uncle likes watching basketball. By and large the people who say this are not the people who really like going to the theatre, they go under duress, perhaps once a year. I go about once a week and I’m telling you I don’t care what colour velvet my seat is, I just want to see a great show without running the risk of a broken collarbone.

In a modern, built for purpose theatre space, like the Young Vic, the Donmar, the NT, I admit the experience is different. Firstly, you can actually see all of the stage from all of the seats: you don’t find yourself in ‘restricted view’- craning from behind a pillar or with a gorgeous ornate balcony overhead cutting off the heads of half the performers. The facilities are better: the air conditioning tends to be rather more reliable and you don’t spend the entire interval queueing for two tiny toilet cubicles that seem to have been crammed into an adapted broom cupboard. Most vitally, the setting does not distract from the set design. The brilliant modern sets of Chimerica or A Doll’s House are diminished, not enhanced, by a restrictive and incongruous gold and velvet proscenium arch.

Chichester Festival Theatre interior

The inside of Chichester Festival Theatre. Notice how well everyone can see the stage?

Modern, young (ish) theatre goers like myself want affordable tickets and a space designed to appreciate a modern show in. But we’re not the only ones: when I worked front of house at the modern and stark Chichester Festival Theatre there were plenty of old, rich, ‘traditional theatre goers’ in the audience. Not a single one of them was heard to remark that their experience was ruined because they didn’t spend it surrounded by golden cherubs.

I argue this for the same reason I treat anything related to the monarchy with exasperation and bemusement: I don’t think London needs to cling to the old and outdated to attract tourists. Let’s have a bit more confidence in the ingenuity and brilliance of today’s architects, theatre-makers and set designers. Let’s stop crippling our theatres with crazy bills for preserving old architecture. Let’s spend that money on decent writers, spectacular choruses and massive fuck-off exploding helicopters.

Leave a Reply