Andrew Bailey snaps up a hot ticket in London’s theatre-land, and highlights the case of a shivering student
After shelling out serious wonga for tickets to the latest West End show, you’d think these world-class venues would ensure the basic comfort needs of audiences were met. But, of course, you’d be sadly mistaken, at least as far as cooling is concerned.
Few of the score or so historic theatres in London’s West End have air conditioning, resulting in much suffering and loss of enjoyment. The newer ones, such as the National Theatre and Barbican, are well equipped. But it’s a rare thing in the remaining majority of Edwardian and Victorian venues, that play host to some of the biggest shows in town.
This means that a visit to Phantom of the Opera, which still plays to mostly full houses, becomes a sweaty ordeal even in Spring. Go in the height of summer, and it is unmitigated hell – particularly if you opt for the cheap seats in the rafters. Much of the action of the show takes place in the cool, dank cellars of the Paris Opera House. In August, however, Phantom of the Opera rapidly becomes more like Laurence of Arabia.
It’s the heritage that’s the problem. The lovely, ornate interiors of these venues are simply not designed to accommodate the piping and paraphernalia of air conditioning. For the purists, there is also the issue of noise. Even the most whisper-quiet of modern air conditioning systems can become an unwelcome and obtrusive distraction during the taught silences of a Chekhov or Pinter play. It’s not so much of a problem at a Meat Loaf concert, admittedly.
But now, for all those who have panted through Phantom and endured misery during Les Miserables, there is good news. Ladies and gentlemen, Andrew Lloyd Webber has applied for planning permission to install air conditioning at one of the great London venues - the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. (Cue song). It is part of a refurbishment scheme that will put a £1million dent in the coffers of the Really Useful Group, not known for being short of a bob or two, but adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of theatregoers.
Lloyd Webber spoke in a debate in the House of Lords last year about how it would cost £15 million to install air conditioning in Drury Lane, due to its status as a Grade I-listed building. It now appears that a more commercially viable way has been found to undertake the improvements to the historic venue.
Hopefully, it marks the beginning of a new wave of cool shows for the West End.
On a more serious note, there have been long-running concerns around the issue of young people and the inhalation of solvents. Worryingly, the trend, which began in the US, has grown to include breathing refrigerants.
There are reports of teenagers climbing onto roof-tops to break open air conditioning pipework in order to inhale gas. It became national news recently following the death of a 19-year-old girl as a result of sniffing refrigerant.
On the basis that what happens in the US today happens here in three years, this is obviously a trend to be aware of. Plant that shows signs of being tampered should arouse suspicions on the part of service engineers or end user maintenance staff and appropriate action taken to secure plant and access to roof-tops.
This is one US import we can do without.
“The wind howls. Who knows how fast? I wonder what the wind chill factor is. Most of the people around me wear jackets.” No, the writer is not on an arctic expedition, or up in the mountains. He is in the tropics, about five degrees north of the equator, and not too far from sea level, “in Kuala Lumpur in fact – sitting perishing in my air conditioned classroom.”
This extract from a recent entry in the personal online diary of student Sun Tzu tells its own story. Note it’s not just the writer who is shivering, his classmates are sitting there wearing jackets – while the tropical sun beats down outside.
It’s just one more fragment of evidence in support of a thesis I believe to be universally true: that air conditioning is often set too cold, wasting vast amounts of electricity and failing to create comfortable conditions for buildings occupants.
You may recall the case I reported case a few months back of a shivering shop assistant in East Grinstead, whose indoor work environment was controlled by a man in Belgium. She can’t turn up the ‘stat, because there isn’t one. So she comes to work wearing two jumpers and a scarf – while the sun shines outside. This kind of thing not only gets our industry a bad name, in these days of expensive energy and climate change, it is certifiable madness.