Falling Spidermen and false teeth: Ian McKellen and the history of theatrical accidents

The ill-fated Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
The ill-fated Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ian McKellen gave a performance with a little more heft than he intended this week.

The 85-year-old took a tumble on June 17 at the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, while playing roly-poly knight Falstaff in Player Kings, falling off the front of the stage and being taken to hospital for his hip to be treated. Happily, he is said to be recovering well and is due to return to the role on Thursday.

But acting accidents are as old as the theatrical form and, as these famous examples demonstrate, the show must go on.

Spidey senses tingling

McKellen got off relatively lightly. Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway was billed as the most expensive musical in history, costing $75 million (then £47 million) to stage, but was beset by disasters from the start. Christopher Tierney, who played Spider-Man, suffered life-threatening injuries when he fell more than 30ft into the orchestra pit in December 2010; his replacement, Richard Kobak, got so hurt during his stint playing the comic book hero that he sued the producers for $6 million.

Daniel Curry, a 23-year-old dancer, had his foot crushed in 2013 when he became trapped between a lift and the stage. “I thought, am I going to die? I was praying through those moments, and just trying to stay as calm as possible. As alert as possible. I didn’t want to pass out, in case I needed to answer people trying to help me.” In surgery, about three-quarters of his foot was removed and replaced with other tissue. The show closed not long after.

Similar stories have happened here. Adam Salter, an actor in a glitzy 2007 version of Lord of the Rings, almost took the maxim to “break a leg” literally when he got his leg caught between two parts of the hydraulic stage. Salter was rushed to hospital after collapsing in front of 2,300 punters, with shows being cancelled. Happily, his leg was not actually broken.

A scene from the Lord of the Rings musical
A scene from the Lord of the Rings musical - Gareth Cattermole

Is there a doctor in the house?

Michael Gambon, who died last September, once struggled to get himself into a role in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a 2009 play about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, at the National Theatre. Nicholas Hytner, the theatre’s director, recalled that he got letters comparing Gambon’s incomprehensibility with the clarity of Simon Russell Beale.

Hytner said that during one rehearsal Gambon had an attack of ill health. “Suddenly, the blood drains from him. He staggers and falls into a chair,” Hytner wrote in his memoir. “We call for help, an oxygen tank is hurried into the room, then a stretcher. Michael is wheeled out, the oxygen mask over his face. One of the stage managers goes with him in the ambulance to St Thomas’s Hospital.

“As he’s carried into A&E she asks him if there is any message he’d like her to take back to the rehearsal room. ‘Don’t worry about those bastards,’ he says. ‘They’re already on the phone to Simon Russell Beale.’” Gambon did pull out – but was replaced by Richard Griffiths instead.

Michael Gambon was rushed to hospital
Michael Gambon was rushed to hospital - Robbie Jack

Mind your step

Laurence Olivier’s career could not have had a less auspicious start. In his first role, at the Brighton Hippodrome in 1925, he was continually warned about the sills in the theatre’s doorways, which could be a trip hazard. After getting his cue, he “gave the canvas door a push and strode manfully through it” – and promptly stumbled on the lip of the door.

“Before I knew what was happening to me I found my front teeth wedged firmly between a pink bulb and a blue one in the middle of the footlights,” he wrote in his 1982 memoir. “I scrambled to my feet dusting myself off, and stood a while blinking at the audience; then turned and blinked at Ruby Miller, who was pro enough not to have turned a hair. I looked back once pleadingly to the audience, but they were not to be robbed as easily as that of their biggest laugh for ages.”

Damn these dentures

More teeth now. John Vandenhoff was a leading Shakespearean actor in the 19th century and played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as his valedictory role in 1858.

In the third scene of the first act, Vandenhoff started by saying “Three thousand…” before there was the sound of something falling on stage and the speech ended as soon as it had begun. His co-star, Henry Irving, recalled: “I looked up at him and saw his mouth moving, but there was no sound. At that moment, my eye caught the glitter of something on stage. I stopped to pick it up, and as I did so saw that it was a whole set of false teeth.”

Irving went on: “This I handed to Shylock, keeping my body between him and the audience so that no one might see the transaction. He turned away for an instant, putting both hands up to his face. As he turned back to the audience his words came out quite strong and clearly: ‘Three thousand ducats – well!’ ”

Sir Ian McKellen tumbled off the stage during a recent production of Player Kings
Sir Ian McKellen tumbled off the stage during a recent production of Player Kings - Manuel Harlan

Caution: slippery when wet

The elements can also play havoc with theatre. In 1982, the National Theatre staged Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream, a play set on a floating cabin cruiser that was well-received at its initial run in Scarborough the previous year. Moving to the South Bank is when the problems began – not least because the new production had 12 people weighing down the boat, double that which had been used in North Yorkshire. The National’s boat was held in a 6,000-gallon tank that eventually split and drenched most of the stage machinery, leading to previews being cancelled. The critic Jack Tinker, taking no risks, turned up for opening night in a pair of Wellington boots.