Is it me, or is it HOT in here?

The recent heatwave in the UK prompted this recollection, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Back in the 1980s, the onset of scorching summer weather meant two headaches for London’s West End theatres. Firstly, ticket sales would slump as people elected to stay outside. Secondly, those that were brave enough to venture inside on those baking hot days were very good purchasers of drinks- and everything came with ice! Inevitably, on two show days, the resources of the theatres’ own ice-making machines could not keep up and it was just a matter of time before the cry went up “time to call Acorn Ice”. Their little white vans could be seen beetling around Theatreland, supplying just about every large theatre with several large glaciers-worth of the cool stuff each and every summer Saturday night.

The majority of the West End’s theatre stock was built before the advent of air conditioning. From the late 1920s, new cinemas were built with various kinds of (often rudimentary) aircon which varied in effectiveness. Theatres had to wait for aircon until the early 1990s, mainly due to their highly decorated appearance and listed status making it practically impossible to make any kind of major adjustments without impacting the “look” of the auditorium. Another issue was that West End theatres’ original designs squeezed every ounce of space out of their footprints on the most expensive land in the country, which is why you will still come across tiny toilets stuck away in odd-shaped spaces. Installing aircon in these theatres was a tricky (and costly) proposition.

Victoria Palace Theatre after renovation and aircon. Photo by Philip Vile

The kind of modification that aircon required could only take place during scheduled refurbishments which came around very infrequently, and only after a show had concluded a run and “gone dark”. Further, theatre owners were reluctant to keep theatres dark for a moment more than necessary, as in this state they brought in no earnings.

However, some theatres were luckier than others. Whilst a theatre manager in the 1980s, I was very lucky to be at the Victoria Palace – where we had an advantage.

The Victoria Palace was built in 1911 as a variety theatre (dubbed “London’s last great variety house”) and as such demanded a large capacity (1500) and a fast turnaround (for many years giving two shows nightly and three on Saturdays). Built by the doyen of theatre architects, Frank Matcham, the theatre had a number of clever design signatures which made this theatre easier to manage. As a darkened, enclosed box the heat of the day was not an issue on most days as the theatre was kept cool by simply not allowing light and heat in. However, the heat of a 1500-strong audience, combined with lights, etc , on a two show day with the mercury rising outside was quite an issue.

The “dome” within a dome that rolled off – from a pre-refurbishment photo, uncredited (apologies to the photographer)

Frank Matcham understood this, and helped all who have populated his theatres to keep cool – audiences and management both! How? Well, in the centre of the auditorium ceiling is a dome, and within that a smaller dome. But the smaller dome was rather deceptive. It was much shallower than it appeared, and was actually separate from the rest of the ceiling design. It was mounted on a large framework which was on wheels, which sat in a pair of tracks, just like a train track. This meant that on a hot day, our excellent stage crew would know what to do. Had the last people to leave the auditorium looked up, they would have seen the smaller dome moving towards the stage end to reveal – the sky!

After the magnificent renovation – the “dome” that used to roll off, now beautifully lit in blue but sadly static. Photo courtesy BuroHappold Engineeering website.

As we all know, hot air rises, so Matcham created this device to expel the hottest air. When the auditorium doors were opened to exit the first house, that rush of fresh air coming into the auditorium would effectively push through and expel the old, hot air through the hole in the ceiling. Before the house opened again, the dome would be rolled back into its original position, and audiences were none the wiser – but a lot cooler. Air conditioning was finally fully installed in the 1990s. Now superseded by a brand new aircon system (courtesy of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s sparkling renovation of 2017), Matcham’s innovation is a brilliant piece of past history, but all of us who ran the VP will recall his ingenuity with gratitude. And also consigned to history was the sort of phone call I got to my office one Saturday afternoon when the heat and humidity set off some sharp showers outside. “Can we close the dome please? It’s raining in the front stalls!”

Read my Theatre Preview roundup for London’s Barbican Life magazine (Summer 2019 issue)

If you are a resident of the Barbican Estate in London, you may already have seen my regular theatre preview articles in the excellent quarterly BARBICAN LIFE magazine, covering all the exciting and innovative theatre productions staged in the next couple of months at the world-renowned Barbican Centre.

If you haven’t, then please click on the link to go directly to the theatre preview article here. Enjoy!