London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Backstage At The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

30/05/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 15494 votes

We love attending the theatre in London – the elegant buildings, the exceptional performances, the excitement in the air – the enchantment of it all. Emerging from the crush of the crowds, we burrow deep into our seats in places with unfamiliar names, the “stalls” or “dress circle,” distracted only by the sweet anticipation of the ice cream at the interval. When we discovered that the Theatre Royal Drury Lane offered a backstage tour (“Through the Stage Door”), we eagerly purchased tickets for the opportunity to slip behind the scenes. We had so enjoyed My Fair Lady a year earlier in this legendary arena.

Majestic in every way, the theatre possesses a background as rich and colorful as London itself: royal feuds, fires, bankruptcy and even a murder. (An assassination attempt was also made here on the life of King George III in 1800.) Add to that the fascinating and famous people associated with the Theatre Royal throughout the years (not to mention its ghosts), and one can easily conclude that the tantalizing tale of the historic theatre rivals any of the plays that have been performed on its stage.

My husband and I waited in the lobby for the tour to begin. Our guide and storyteller was Sally, an enthusiastic young performer, who appeared and told us that we were the only participants in the tour. She explained that we would have access to additional areas because we could move faster than a larger and more cumbersome group. It was, essentially, our own private tour!


Sally began with a brief history. Oliver Cromwell, consummate Puritan that he was, ordered all theatres be closed under his rule during the Commonwealth; however, Charles II wished to reinstate them during the Restoration and called for two royal theatres to be built. As a result, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was built on its current site (opening in 1663), and the Royal Opera House became the second such chartered establishment. In 1665, the Theatre Royal was closed due to the Plague. Soon after it reopened, Nell Gwynne, mistress of Charles II and for whom she bore two sons, made her acting debut here, having earlier worked in the building as an orange seller, and was known for her profanity and bawdy humor, appearing mostly in comedies.

Sally pointed out the statue of David Garrick in the Lower Rotunda. David Garrick, as actor, manager and playwright, was considered “the first modern superstar.” Extremely popular as an actor in the 18th century, he also, morally speaking, cleaned up the theatre; he put a stop to the practice of allowing men backstage where, for a fee, they could watch the actresses dress. Dr. Samuel Johnson noted that Garrick’s “profession made him rich and he made his profession respectable.”

Sally continued with more stories. Charles Macklin was a versatile, if a bit volatile, actor during this same time period. Known for his violent temper, he once landed a blow to the prompter and explained to the audience that “the scoundrel prompted me in the middle of my grand pause.” However, he is best remembered for killing a fellow actor in the Green Room by stabbing him in the eye with a stick during a disagreement about a wig. He subsequently represented himself during the trial and managed to have the charges reduced to manslaughter. He was not sent to jail but only ordered to pay compensation to the actor’s family. His acting career was not adversely affected and, if anything, perhaps enhanced by the notoriety. It has been said that his ghost haunts the front stalls of the theatre.

Richard Sheridan managed Drury Lane during the latter part of the 18th century and wrote plays as well, producing several masterpieces. However, he was a renowned procrastinator; once the actors in an upcoming but yet unfinished play locked him in a room with a bottle of port and some anchovy sandwiches, releasing him only when the play was completed.

He was also a Member of Parliament, taking his duties there more seriously than his theatrical obligations. In 1809, the Theatre Royal was destroyed by fire; Sheridan refused to be pulled away from his parliamentary business and later, as he watched the fire from a nearby tavern, dismissively remarked, “Leave me, leave me; ‘tis a great pity if a man cannot take a glass of wine by his own fireside.” He died in 1816 and was buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Stories of the personalities from this theatre abound. The actor William Macready, a perfectionist, once felt it necessary to bloody a stagehand’s nose when the fake blood did not arrive in time for him to smear his hands prior to his stage entrance during a performance of Macbeth. Grimaldi, the world’s most famous clown, appeared often in Drury Lane, where he was instrumental in the development of pantomime. However, his personal life was tragic and he died before he was 50; it is said that he haunts the stage at Drury Lane.

There was the actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who was noted for his noble bearing and gentlemanly ways. Once during a rehearsal, he was nearly killed when a spanner (wrench) fell from a grid high above, missing him by only inches. He paused, looked up and said softly, “Please don’t do that again.” And Sarah Siddons, often called the greatest English dramatic actress, frequently graced the stage of Drury Lane; one of her death scenes made George III weep with abandon and request that the play never be performed again.

The Theatre Royal was no stranger to financial hardship. In 1851, it simply could not compete with the Great Exhibition and went bankrupt. An American circus was imported to offer audiences a touch of extravaganza and thereby stimulate ticket sales.

Sally stated that the Drury Lane is unique in that there is a King’s side and a Prince’s side of the theatre. This came about due to the strained relations between King George III and his son, the Prince Regent. After an altercation one evening in the Lower Rotunda between the two men, the King and Prince were henceforth directed to their own respective sides of the building. The Drury Lane remains the only theatre in London with two Royal Boxes. We followed Sally through a doorway to the left under which a panel read “King’s Side.”

We entered the Royal Room, a beautifully decorated room leading to the Royal Box. There is much gold on the walls and ceiling, and the chandelier is the only Waterford one in the building. This is where the Royals can retreat, in privacy, during the interval or before a show. She took us into the Royal Box, being careful not to be seen, as there was a small rehearsal for My Fair Lady taking place on stage. She whispered that we were not to be there when they were rehearsing, and must therefore stay out of sight.

She explained that the Royal Box is not a good place to sit to watch the show, its primary purpose being to display the Royals. The box faces toward the audience, and one-third of the stage is obstructed from view. She said that nowadays, when members of the Royal Family come to the theatre, they do not use the Royal Box unless they are attending for a special occasion or for a televised performance.

They tend to sit elsewhere. “You may find yourself sitting next to Prince Charles,” she told us. Interestingly, the general public can purchase tickets for the Royal Box at a price no higher than the cost of any other seats. But for a much greater price, a package can be obtained in which both the Royal Box and the Royal Room are offered, complete with a tuxedo-attired gentleman serving champagne.

Stage Door

Sally took us below the stage to see the machinery that made possible the special effects for which the theatre became famous during the last two centuries. These consisted of six lifts, four constructed as bridges that raise and lower the stage, with two others that allow for a see-saw motion which is quite successful when used for sinking ships on stage. Special effects became the theatre’s hallmark; as early as 1868, a real hansom cab with a horse made an appearance on stage, amazing the audience.

This was soon followed with a process by which horses raced on a mechanical belt, a technique which worked well and continued to be used. Ben Hur was staged at the beginning of the 20th century featuring a sinking galleon and a 16-horse chariot race. An avalanche, a train crash and an earthquake were only several of the many special effects that followed in these early years. During one production, the stage was transformed into the Sahara Desert with horses, camels and goats, and a spectacular sandstorm as well. Unfortunately, on opening night, the sandstorm, due to a technical error, extended well into the audience and caused quite a stir among those seated in the front stalls!

We traipsed up more stairs and followed Sally backstage. She opened a door onto a room full of wigs, telling us that over 200 wigs are used in My Fair Lady. She pointed out the actors’ dressing rooms, which were locked and thus unavailable for viewing. We walked along the “run” which is a corridor behind the stage used by the performers when they have to run off one side of the stage and enter from another. At her direction, we followed her onto the stage itself (the rehearsal having ended), and I must say it was rather thrilling standing there and looking out into the darkened theatre from an actor’s perspective.

As we stood on stage, Sally gave a lively account of the most famous of the Theatre Royal’s ghosts: the man in grey. Dressed in a grey riding cloak, riding boots and three-cornered hat, he has been seen only in the Upper Circle and only during the day. Once a cleaner, swearing no knowledge of the ghost beforehand, claimed to have seen him sitting in the fourth row, watching a rehearsal. No one knows who he might be, but it is thought that he is tied to the discovery in a wall, in the 1840s by workmen, of a skeleton with a dagger in its ribs. (The body, never identified, was buried in the old cemetery on the corner of Drury Lane and Russell Street.) However, his appearance is considered a good omen for a production since he only appears during successful runs.

She told us that the back of the stage was being used to hold costumes and props, indicating that this is customary when a play is performed here not requiring the full stage. (This stage is the second largest in London, the largest being at the London Palladium.) The rest of the space behind the stage is used for storage; she breezily explained that this is one of fourteen theatres owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the others smaller than the Theatre Royal. Consequently, it serves as a sort of dumping ground for everything no one else has room for, and the command is repeatedly given to “send it over to Drury Lane.”

We passed through a room in which performers were arriving and signing in for the upcoming evening performance, and we sensed a crackle of electricity in the air from the flurry of backstage activity. I was glad that we had chosen the tour scheduled for this time slot, only hours before the show, and not the one given earlier in the afternoon.

We walked outside with Sally as she showed us the two entrances, one for the King and the other for the Prince. She called our attention to the Fortune Theatre across the street where The Woman in Black, a ghost story, was playing and in its 14th year. She said there has been an occasional joke made about the “woman in black” and the “man in grey.” We had tickets for The Woman in Black later that evening and were looking forward to it, especially now that we were in the mood for a good haunting!

This was the conclusion of the tour, and we said our goodbyes. We left with tales of apparitions and actors swirling in our heads. We had been thoroughly charmed by our visit to the other side of the stage. It was definitely worth the modest price of ten pounds and the investment of one hour of our time in London to be in the delightful company of Sally as she led us through the tragedies and comedies that make up the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Candice Caster

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Re: Backstage At The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

By 11/06/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 14655 votes)

Just got back..went to Mamma Mia. Play was great.. seats were something out of the past.. too small and no leg room at all. Guess they were made for small Englishmen.

<b>Editor: They were fine for me, maybe that proves something.</b>

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Re: Backstage At The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

By Iandaoperaman 11/04/2010, (Rating: 2.9 from 11931 votes)

A very interesting review on your trip around the oldest working theatre in the world. I just thought you might like to know that whilst your correct in commenting that the stage of Drury Lane is the second largest in London, it is second in size to the London Coliseum, not the Palladium, which has the distinction of being forth or fifth in size. The Coli, Drury Lane & The Royal Opera House are larger stages. The Palladium stage is very wide, but shallow, whereas its colleagues have wide and very deep stages. Just thought you might like to know!?

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