On my day off I decided to go on a backstage tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Currently home to the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the theatre has a rich history, being the oldest theatre in London (it has existed, albeit as four different buildings, since 1663: it burned down in 1672, was demolished in 1791 to make way for a bigger theatre, and burned down again in 1809; the current building dates from 1812). The Theatre Royal is currently owned by Really Useful Theatres and their Theatre Royal Drury Lane page has lots of information about the history of the theatre. Tours begin in the foyer, currently decorated in keeping with the chocolate factory theme.
Our first port of call was the atrium, topped by an impressive glass dome. This building was opened in 1812 and is recognisably Georgian in style. Doors on the left and right hand side lead to the ‘King’s side’ and the ‘Prince’s side’: King George and his son did not get on and they needed separate entrances to ensure that they did not have to meet at the theatre. Unfortunately, it was still possible for them to bump into each other before they vanished through their respective doors.
Statues of four prominent figures in the theatre’s history stand in this room. Shakespeare’s plays were performed here frequently. As a ‘Theatre Royal’, Drury Lane possessed a Royal Charter which meant it was one of only a select few theatres which were allowed to produce straight plays (as opposed to comedies, skits and musical entertainments). Initially, the only other Theatre Royal was Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House), though the Theatre Royal Haymarket eventually gained its Charter, too. Notable Shakespearean performers include Thomas Betterton, who played Hamlet when he was over 70, Sarah Siddons, Charles Kemble and David Garrick, who became the theatre’s manager in 1747 and introduced many lasting theatrical reforms.
Michael William Balfe was a composer, who wrote what was possibly the first modern musical, The Bohemian Girl, a work which enjoyed huge success at this theatre in the nineteenth century. Finally, Edmund Kean was a much admired and respected actor who was famed for his Shakespearean performances at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. In the centre of the room is a copy of Antonio Canova’s statue The Three Graces.
Our tour took us all around the theatre, along the narrow corridors and up and down stairs, where we were able to get a good look at things that we would probably miss during the pre-performance crush if we were here to see a performance. Among the things we saw were: a copy of the original Royal Charter granted to Thomas Killigrew by Charles II; an armchair which supposedly belonged to Hitler (!), the Royal Retiring Room and a deactivated WW2 bomb, which landed in the theatre, luckily without exploding, in 1940. We also saw a picture of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, best known for The School for Scandal – he took over management of the theatre in 1776. One of my favourite theatrical anecdotes concerns Sheridan and the Theatre Royal. The building – the third on the site – burned down in 1809, taking Sheridan’s entire fortune with it. When he heard that his theatre was on fire, Sheridan hurried to the scene, took a table at a nearby coffee house and drank wine as he watched the flames. When a friend expressed surprise at how calmly he seemed to be taking the news, Sheridan replied, “Cannot a man take a glass of wine at his own fireside?”
Our tour took us into the auditorium, though sadly we weren’t allowed to take photographs in here. The theatre is one of the largest in the West End (which one is the largest depends on what criteria you use), seating over 2000 people. During the Victorian period it was famous for theatre of great spectacle: one play featured a dozen horses and a train crash, while another made use of hydraulic apparatus, supposedly able to discharge 39 tons of water, to create a flowing cataract.
One of my favourite parts of the tour was being able to go into the areas that are usually off-limits to the public. These included the cellar, part of the original seventeenth century building, and the backstage area, which was huge, many times the size of the stage, and used to paint scenery for a variety of external productions.
I was very interested in the stories of ghosts which are rumoured to haunt the theatre. Most theatres have resident ghosts but the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is more prone than most to such things, as it has such a long and varied history. The most famous ghost is the “Man in Grey”, rumoured to be the ghost of a late eighteenth century man whose skeleton was found in a walled-up passage of the theatre in 1848. Joseph Grimaldi, the famous clown, is also rumoured to haunt the theatre: he is supposed to be helpful, guiding nervous actors around the stage. Actor Charles Macklin is another supposed ghost: in 1735 he killed fellow actor Thomas Hallam during an argument over a wig when, waving his cane about dramatically, he accidentally thrust it through Hallam’s eye.
Thanks to a 2013 restoration of the theatre by its current owner Andrew Lloyd Webber, which returned many of the public areas to their original Regency style, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane looks pretty good for its age and is a beautiful theatre in which to witness a production. I highly recommend a tour: it’s a gorgeous theatre, rich in history, and a must-visit for any theatre lover. Tours take place regularly and can be booked on the Really Useful Theatres website.