When It's Not An Accident

In 2013, my younger sister went on a school trip to see 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime' at the Apollo Theatre in London. Midway through the performance, the ceiling caved in. That night over dinner, my sister recounted, at times tearfully, how she had gradually become aware of an unusual sound during the show, a strange creaking that had intensified over the course of a minute. She described how in a split-second, she made the decision to flee, ignoring the instruction of her teacher to stay seated, as chunks of plaster and debris hit others in the auditorium. 

The event, which made national news headlines, was eventually categorised as an unfortunate accident. The ceiling of the Apollo, made from a mixture of plaster and hessian cloth suspended from timber beams — a style of construction developed in the 1800s — had been in place since 1901. Although a safety inspection had been undertaken just three months prior to the incident, this was apparently insufficient to uncover evidence of severe structural deterioration. Three months later, the ceiling fell in, emergency services arrived to panicked theatre-goers trying to escape, several buses were commandeered to ferry the injured to hospital and my sister adamantly refused to see a show in a traditional theatre ever again, which was, frankly, understandable.

A yearlong inquiry by Westminster council concluded that current safety guidelines had not been breached, and therefore, neither the venue owner nor the building inspection firm was at fault. The whole thing was billed as an unfortunate accident, one that nonetheless prompted a revision of the technical standards for building checks in historical buildings.

Cllr Nickie Aiken, Westminister City Council's cabinet member for premises management and licensing was memorably quoted as saying, "Simply put, the onus needs to change — experts and owners need to prove that structures are safe rather than not prove that they are unsafe." To the layperson, this would seem to be the bare minimum requirement for any public building, not least one that solicits a nightly audience of hundreds. It amounts to venue owners being given license to cut corners and potentially put people's safety at risk because 'nothing's happened yet'. It's safeguarding negligence.

Today, I went to see a performance of 'Ladykiller' at the Pleasance Courtyard. What I saw of the play was brilliant, and certainly lived up to the hype it's generating on Twitter. Unfortunately, I didn't see the show in it's entirety, because halfway through, a female patron fainted. This isn't the most unusual occurrence — as a reviewer at a large festival like the Fringe, spending much of the day with large numbers of people, occasionally witnessing a medical emergency is inevitable. On this occasion, I wasn't surprised. The past three times I'd been to the Pleasance Courtyard, to see Brexit, Ed Night and William Anderson, I'd heard audience members audibly complain about the heat. After Brexit, I stood in an exit line slowed down by several elderly punters who individually spoke to Pleasance staff to inform them that the temperature inside the theatre was close to unbearable, and were met with blank nods and smiles.

I don't know the reason why this particular woman fainted, but I do know that the theatre (Bunker One), as has become expected at the Pleasance Courtyard, was sweltering, that the air conditioning was either off or insufficient for the space, and that a large fan present was not being utilized. In fact, the first action taken by the venue manager upon seeing this woman slumped in her seat, was to call for the doors to be opened, so that we could "get some fresh air". That should be an indication that the conditions are not satisfactory.

I'm in no way suggesting that The Pleasance is purposely creating an unsafe environment for its patrons. But I also think it's fair for audiences and performers alike to assume, when they go to the theatre, that they don't have to worry about the ceiling falling in or being overcome by the heat. In the past week, we've counted 31 tweets that mention the temperature and humidity at The Pleasance, including the following:

"I’m a great fan of mask work and again saw Famile Floz do a show this one called “Infinta” at Edinburgh Festival in Pleasance grand. They were amazing but suffocating extremely hot packed venue was not. People kept leaving. I’m surprised not to see a faint. Won’t book there again"

"Just seen the fantastic @IAmPippaEvans in @brexitplay at @ThePleasance. Very good play in a *very* hot room!!!"

"@edfringe had a good night at @ThePleasance - but each of the venues (one/above/beyond) were uncomfortably hot. Appreciate it's a university owned building, but could really do with some temperature control..."

"PS most humid venue so far #bunker2 @ThePleasance #EdFringe ! Hot hot hot"

If highlighting this isn't enough to cause a significant change in policy at The Pleasance Courtyard, then any further incidents can no longer be described as accidents. They're simply a result of negligence.