The largest stage in the West End, and a superbly rich theatrical legacy makes this venue a very special place to visit. During the run of a show, check out the Drury Lane Tours which are packed with backstage exploration and tell some of the incredible stories associated with the space. (The tours are not available during fit-ups or technical rehearsals).
The stage is around 80 feet deep, and allows plenty of space for huge shows to store large sets. There’s another world underneath the stage, however. Here are the Theatre Royal Drury Lane Hydraulic Victorian Bridges in Action!
Installed in the theatre second hand after the Vienna Opera House no longer had use for them they still exist and work in the theatre today and are protected by English Heritage. If a show requires the stage to be automated, or requires a large amount of space sub-stage, the machinery is painstakingly decommissioned and removed to safe storage. Once the show closes, the production must cover the costs of the reinstatement and testing of the equipment, before the next show moves into the venue.
Bell hanging in the stage left wing (15 July 2008)
A large prop bell is hung in the stage left wing, high up above the stage, left over from the long running Miss Saigon. The bell is rung with the applause at the end of the final performance of a show’s run at the theatre.
Drury Lane has been called one of the world’s most haunted theatres. The appearance of almost any one of the hundreds of ghosts that are said to frequent the theatre signals good luck for an actor or production. The most famous ghost is the “Man in Grey”, who appears dressed as a nobleman of the late 18th century: powdered hair beneath a tricorne hat, a dress jacket and cloak or cape, riding boots and a sword. The man appears in a particular seat in the upper circle (D1) and stands up and makes his way across the area, before disappearing through a wall. In 1848, the theatre was remodelled and a wall was removed, revealing (according to legend) the skeleton of a man stabbed with a knife, wearing a grey hat, in the exact spot where the ghostly figure disappeared.
Auditorium (15 July 2008)
The ghosts of actor Charles Macklin and clown Joseph Grimaldi are supposed to haunt the theatre. Macklin appears backstage, wandering the corridor which now stands in the spot where, in 1735, he killed fellow actor Thomas Hallam in an argument over a wig (“Goddamn you for a blackguard, scrub, rascal!” he shouted, thrusting a cane into Hallam’s face and piercing his left eye). Grimaldi is reported to be a helpful apparition, purportedly guiding nervous actors skilfully about the stage on more than one occasion, and occasionally kicking lazy performers in the rear.
The comedian Stanley Lupino claimed to have seen the ghost of Dan Leno in a dressing room.
History (from the official website)
1663 – The first Theatre Royal at Drury Lane is erected by Thomas Killigrew, on request from King Charles II. The theatre building was around the size of the current stage.
1665 – Nell Gwynne made her debut on the stage, and was first seen there by King Charles II. Samuel Pepys also visited the theatre.
1672 – The theatre was destroyed by fire.
1674 – Thomas Killigrew rebuilt the theatre, which opened in 1674 and remained in operation for 117 years. This building witnessed the triumphs of Thomas Betterton who played Hamlet when he was over 70, Charles Macklin who murdered a fellow actor in the Green Room and lived to be over 100, Peg Woffington, Mrs Jordan, Sarah Siddons and Charles Kemble.
1747 – David Garrick became the manager of the theatre, and introduced many reforms which have shaped modern theatre.
1776 – Richard Brinsley Sheridan took over running the theatre.
1777 – Sheridan’s The School for Scandal received it’s premiere performance at the theatre.
1794 – Sheridan oversaw the demolition of the ageing building and its replacement by a larger theatre to seat 3,600 people, designed by Henry Holland. It opened in March with a performance of sacred music by Handel because theatrical performances were banned during Lent.
1809? – Despite having the world’s first safety curtain, the theatre burned down only 15 years later, bringing Sheridan’s management, and personal fortune, to the ground along with it.
1812 – The fourth and present building opened in 1812. It was designed by Benjamin Wyatt and the front of house areas today are much as they were at the first performance. The building was financed by a ‘Committee of Renters’ recruited by the brewer Samuel Whitbread, and Lord Byron was Chairman of the board. It was here that Edmund Kean became a star overnight with his performance of Shylock, where the great clown Joseph Grimaldi gave his farewell benefit performance and where Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell triumphed in a series of spectacular pantomimes. Drury Lane became famous throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries for producing spectacles under the guidance of its adventurous managers, most notably F.B. Chatterton, Augustus Harris, Arthur Collins and Alfred Butt. Scenes staged included chariot races in Ben Hur, the Derby and an earthquake in The Hope, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in Youth, a train crash in The Whip, sinking ships, air balloons, underwater fights, the Chelsea Flower Show, Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the flooding of Paris and Alpine avalanches.
1920s – Rose Marie introduced the American singer and actress Edith Day (1924-1927) who went on to head the casts of The Desert Song (1927-1928), in which Anna Neagle also made her stage debut, and Show Boat (1928) with Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson. The New Moon (1929) starred Evelyn Laye who received ‘torrents of applause’ and included a blazing pirate ship as one of its scenic attractions.
1930s – Noël Coward had a major success with Cavalcade (1931). Produced by C.B. Cochrane, the cast of 400 included a young John Mills and set-pieces included a troopship setting sail, the relief of Mafeking and Queen Victoria’s funeral. Coward’s post-war musical Pacific 1860 (1946) starred Mary Martin but did not tap into the public psyche so well and closed after four months.
Drury Lane also hosted most of Ivor Novello’s major successes. Glamorous Night (1935), Careless Rapture (1936),Crest of the Wave (1937) and The Dancing Years (1939) all had audiences flocking to the theatre. Novello starred in all of the productions and in true Drury Lane fashion introduced as many major scenic effects as possible, including sinking ships, a fair on Hampstead Heath, a train crash and an earthquake.
War Years – During the Second World War the theatre was the home base for ENSA and received a direct hit from a gas bomb which, fortunately, did not explode but did destroy the rear of the auditorium.