Theatre suffered 'years of neglect'

Salisbury Journal: Police cordon off the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London Police cordon off the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London

The owner of a West End theatre where a ceiling collapsed on to the audience claimed last year that the venue had "suffered years of benign neglect".

Investigations are continuing into why about 10 square metres of plaster from the Grade II-listed Apollo Theatre plummeted on to the stalls below on Thursday night, leaving 80 people injured.

Previous owner Andrew Lloyd Webber warned that the building was in a "shocking" state 10 years ago and recommended that it should be demolished, it was reported .

One of the lines of inquiry being considered is that excess water during a torrential downpour may have caused the collapse, after forecasters confirmed there was an abnormally high concentration of rain, hail and lightning in London on Thursday.

Nica Burns, co-owner and chief executive of Nimax Theatres, which runs the building in Shaftesbury Avenue, said in an interview last year that it had a budget of just £2.45 million to restore its five West End playhouses.

That was funded by a £1 restoration levy on tickets at the theatres, which the company said was spent entirely on upkeep and maintenance work once VAT was paid.

Speaking to Theatres Magazine, Ms Burns said: "Before we could start on the improvements, we had to address the damp. Water attacks the building from above and below ."

The restoration work carried out included new £120,000 customer toilets and a makeover for four carved stone muses on the rooftop, she told the magazine.

In 2000, Lord Lloyd-Webber, who sold the Apollo to Nimax in 2005, told the Times: "The Apollo in particular is a shocking place.

"I suggested that both it and the Lyric should be knocked down and replaced by top-quality modern theatres."

The composer and musical theatre impresario complained that his plans for black-box auditorium inside the existing plasterwork had been opposed by English Heritage.

When it listed the building in 1972, the public body cited the Apollo's "richly ornamental shallow domed ceiling on pendentives" as one of its stand-out features.

More than 700 people were inside the Apollo - which was 45 minutes into the National Theatre's performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time - when members of the audience started screaming as it appeared parts of the ceiling caved in.

Some of the injured were taken to hospital on board London buses as the emergency services dealt with the incident in the heart of the capital.

Most were discharged shortly afterwards, having been mainly treated for cuts and bruises.

Although performances at the Apollo have been cancelled until January 4, London mayor Boris Johnson said the West End was "open for business".

Mr Johnson also praised the response from emergency services as "exemplary", adding: "Westminster City Council and the Society of London Theatre have assured me that all safety checks for the West End's historic theatres are up to date but, as a precaution, further checks have already started and will continue throughout the day."

A Westminster City Council spokesman said: "We have finished our initial on-site work, and now our investigation turns to reviewing the paperwork Nimax have provided, surveys and their recommendations and any works done to the building.

"The theatre are now assessing the impact and beginning the clean up operation.

"We do not expect to conclude our investigation until the new year and after just 24 hours it is too early to rule out any potential cause.

"We continue to work closely with the owners to assess the situation and continue with our investigation."

A Scotland Yard spokesman said criminal involvement has been ruled out and the investigation into what happened would be handled by the council.

Nicola Aiken, the council's cabinet member for community protection, said the theatre's health and safety checks were "up to date".

"Each historic theatre is unique and we have no reason to believe this is other than an isolated incident," she said.

"We have confirmed today with the Society of London Theatre that all theatres' safety checks are up to date; however, as a precaution, all historic theatres are carrying out further safety checks."

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