Ceilings in London Theaters Keep Falling Down


LONDON — Earlier this month, theatergoers watching “Death of a Salesman” in the grand circle of London’s Piccadilly Theater had a shock.

As soon as the play started on Nov. 6, “a dripping sound” could be heard, said Lucy Cartwright, 32, an occupational therapist who was in the audience that night with her boyfriend.

“It was getting louder and more frequent,” she recalled, on a return visit to the theater last week. When she looked up, about 20 minutes in, she saw a foot-long crack had appeared in the ceiling. And it was getting bigger.

“About 30 seconds later, the whole thing just went, ‘Phwom!’” Ms. Cartwright said, mimicking the sound of a slab of plasterboard crashing down.

Five people were lightly injured in the incident, which left a hole in the ceiling. Ushers quickly evacuated the theater, and the American actor Wendell Pierce, the play’s star, went outside to check on everyone. “Turn to your loved ones and friends, left and right, and say, ‘Which pub are we going to?’” he said. “Let’s go there and have a memorable night in anticipation of coming back.”

The plasterboard fell as a result of a “localized water leak,” the Ambassadors Theater Group, the building’s owners, said in a statement. A spokeswoman declined to answer questions about how it happened, but said that an investigation was ongoing, and noted that the building, originally opened in 1928, was undergoing a multimillion pound refurbishment.

The theater reopened on Nov. 15 with the ceiling repaired, and producers and theater owners in the West End quickly moved on, calling what had happened an unfortunate accident that could befall any building in Britain, especially one so old.

But this was not the first chunk of ceiling to fall in a London theater, leading some observers to ask if theatergoers should keep an eye on the ceiling as much as on the stage.

In 2004, 15 people were injured at the Theater Royal Haymarket during a performance of “When Harry Met Sally” after a chandelier fell from the ceiling. A safety rope meant it only dropped four feet, but it brought down parts of the ceiling.

Luke Perry, the “Beverly Hills 90210” star, “leapt from the stage to help people,” The Daily Telegraph reported.

In December 2013, almost 90 people were injured at the Apollo Theater when part of the ceiling collapsed during “The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime.” That was caused by wear to fabric strips that help keep the theater’s ornate plasterwork in place.

The day afterward, the Society of London Theater said in a statement that “every theater undergoes rigorous safety checks” but the event so shocked London it led to a new safety regime. West End theaters ceilings are now inspected and certified annually.

Yet for some in the industry, these measures were not enough. “More needs to be done to maintain these buildings,” said Mark Shenton, a freelance theater critic, in a telephone interview. “Water leaks can happen all the time, so if that’s a real risk, we’re all going to the theater at our peril,” he added.

“We are sitting on a time bomb,” Richard Howle, a former commercial director for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s London theaters, wrote in The Stage, a British theater newspaper. Mr. Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, another theater impresario, have spent huge sums refurbishing buildings for the love of them, Mr. Howle added. “But when they are no longer around, who will be prepared to plow millions into our historic theaters without the prospect of a commercial return?”

In New York, theater ceiling collapses are unheard-of. “I don’t believe anything similar has ever happened on Broadway,” said Jennifer Tepper, a producer and author of books on Broadway history, in an email.

In London, similar problems have been reported in smaller theaters outside the West End. The Southwark Playhouse in South London stopped several performances of a musical, “Preludes,” this fall after water dripped onto the audience. Chris Smyrnios, the theater’s artistic director, said in an email that the theater was in a former office building, built in the 1960s, whose roof “has obviously seen better days.”

The theater had resealed the roof to ensure the leaks shouldn’t happen again, Mr. Smyrnios said, adding that the Southwark Playhouse will relocate to a new venue in three years.

Many theaters charge a restoration surcharge on each ticket bought, of about $2, to help pay for maintenance. Yet some theaters spend far more than this levy could ever raise. One recent morning, Cameron Mackintosh — the producer of “Les Miserables,” who owns seven West End theaters — stood in the rafters of his Gielgud Theater, which dates from 1906, and pointed at its newly restored ceiling. It had cost around $1 million, he said, or $2 million if you factored in lost revenue from closing the theater.

Mr. Mackintosh, 73, said the job had included securing many pieces of elaborate plaster decoration in place with wire. He commissioned the work in January, after receiving a report from engineers that read “‘Don’t panic, but we reckon within two years you do all the ceilings of your Edwardian theaters,’” he said.

In 2017, Mr. Mackintosh also spent around $77 million refurbishing the Victoria Palace Theater, where “Hamilton” is playing, which included work on its ceiling.

Just before “Hamilton” opened for previews, water seeped into the plasterwork of that theater’s auditorium. “I suddenly saw all my beautiful gold new paint turn virulent green,” Mr. Mackintosh said.

“It is a nightmare with water,” he added, saying you had to be ready to deal with any problem that might occur. The Piccadilly Theater incident “may be a very good wakening call to realize the large amounts of money that need to go back to keep these 100-year-old buildings in condition,” he added.

In the grand circle of the Piccadilly Theater during a recent performance of “Death of a Salesman,” no one seemed worried about the repaired ceiling. Keijo Nieminen, 31, a construction engineer from Finland, said he wasn’t concerned. “In Finland, we’ve had some similar issues,” he said. Sometimes roofs there collapse there because of heavy snowfall. “I trust British engineers,” he added.

Anne-Lorraine Imbert, 28, an investment manager, sat in row J — directly below where the plasterboard had fallen. She wasn’t concerned either, she said. “It’s much less dangerous than traveling on the tube, cycling, anything,” she said.

In any case, perishing in an ornate theater would be “so much more joyful” than dying elsewhere, she said.

Several audience members had actually been in the audience on the night of the collapse, and had been given free tickets so they could finish watching the show. Ms. Cartwright, the occupational therapist, was one of them, there again with her boyfriend. “We’re braving it,” she said, with a laugh.

At several points during the play, Ms. Cartwright pulled her boyfriend, Adam Edwards, close, as if for protection. Afterward, she laughed when asked if in those moments she had been worried about the ceiling.

“It wasn’t a ‘brace, brace’ move, no,” she said. She had just been overwhelmed by the play.





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