Kings, ghosts, and an infamous orange-seller – heading through the stage door at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – which has been entertaining the masses since 1663 and is currently home to the West End production of Oliver! – you can definitely, in the words of our favourite Dodger, “consider yourself well in.” The many often lavish productions that have graced the Drury Lane stage over the years are just the beginning of the stories this theatre has to tell – and unique backstage tours give visitors a glimpse at the more than 300 years’ worth of history that the theatre and its colourful characters have lived through.
It is some of these colourful characters who guide visitors on the daily ‘Through The Stage Door’ tours – including me, when I joined one of the tours last week. We began in the Lower Rotunda, with its fabulous chandelier and its statues of some of the greats: the actor Edmund Kean, who made his Drury Lane debut in 1814; David Garrick, an actor and playwright whose run as Drury Lane’s manager lasted 29 years; and Shakespeare, who surely needs no introduction and whose plays have been performed at Drury Lane throughout the building’s history.
The first of our theatrical tour guides gives us some background to Drury Lane’s beginnings. There has been a theatre on the site since 1663. Following years of Puritan rule – during which time Oliver Cromwell closed down the theatres, as well as banning sport, cancelling Christmas, preventing singing in public, and in short helping to make England “a pretty boring place to live”– it was King Charles II who re-opened the theatres and, in 1660, issued Thomas Killigrew with a patent to open what became the first Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. As our guide says, “he’d decided to cheer up the public.”
Apparently the original Drury Lane theatre, which could seat 400, would fit on the current stage. And the theatre was the first in the country to allow a woman onstage. A plaque on the wall lists the longest-running shows, all of which are musicals, with Miss Saigon the overall winner, running for ten years before closing in 1999. But enough facts for now. What we really want from a behind the scenes tour of a 300-year old theatre is scandal – and maybe some ghosts.
Luckily, our second tour guide Margaret Mop – who tells us she has been cleaning the theatre for an incredible 347 years (!) – arrives soon enough to help us with the scandal, by first pointing out the not one, but two royal boxes that the theatre has. This is because back in 1812 when the theatre was reopened (that’s the theatre as it stands currently, after the previous building, itself the third to stand on the site, burned down), the King at the time was George III – the man who inspired playwright Alan Bennett to coin the phrase ‘The Madness of King George.’ As Margaret Mop told us, “he came through the front door and what did he see but his son, the Prince Regent, absolutely drunk as a lord – although it was worse because he was a Prince. The King wasn’t very pleased, so he very subtly went up to him for a quick word – and ended up boxing him round the ears. Can you imagine if Prince Charles and Harry did that today? It wouldn’t go down too well…”
Probably not, but it did lead to the theatre managers splitting the theatre down the middle to create the King’s and the Prince’s entrances, as well as two separate royal retiring rooms and royal boxes. The King’s royal retiring room – decorated with silk wallpaper and with a Waterford crystal chandelier as its centrepiece – has been visited by every reigning monarch. It was also where King George V knighted the actor Frank Benson with a prop sword following a performance, so Margaret tells us.
But now for more scandal as Margaret starts to tell us about Drury Lane’s arguably most infamous resident – Nell Gwynne, orange seller-turned-actress-turned-King Charles II’s best-known mistress, who began her theatre career selling oranges to theatre patrons.
We’re interrupted by another infamous resident – Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a playwright, poet, MP and manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane from 1776, who, as part of new safety measures for the building, installed a 70-ton iron safety curtain and a tank full of water above the stage. Sadly, these safety measures weren’t maintained as they should have been, and the theatre burnt down in 1809. Poor old Sheridan lost half a million pounds.
And now we move away from the royal rooms and Rotundas into the not-so-glamorous world backstage – with Mistress Gwynne herself, no less, entertaining us with her lovely-ish oranges and tales of her mother’s ‘establishment’. Down in the depths of The Tunnel – the oldest part of the current building – she takes us, pointing out the arches that line the tunnel walls – former secret passages including one that, some have alleged, led to Nell Gwynne’s tavern itself. Other passages led all the way down to the banks of the Thames, where ships docked. In some instances, the crews of various ships would work behind the scenes in the theatres. ‘The backstage crew,’ ‘the lighting rig,’ ‘the scenery dock’ – all these nautical terms we use in theatre even now could well come from the days of these sailors.
But we’ve had some scandal, so now we need some ghosts… like poor old Dan Leno, the original pantomime dame who allegedly used to use lavender. “It’s said he was a bit of a practical joker, he liked to play tricks on people, and ‘e still does today – we know it’s ‘im, because he leaves behind a stench of lavender…” so says Nell.
But whilst we might not mind bumping into joker Dan, there’s someone else Nell doesn’t want us to see. “Charles Macklin, a mad old Irish actor, one day got into a fight with another actor over a wig – and he ended up dying after getting stabbed in the eye with Macklin’s stick,” she tells us, adding that some say Charles likes to come back to theatre today to taunt people…
Scared out of the tunnel by Nell’s ghost stories, one of our final stops on the tour is a trip beneath the stage, where mechanisms that are still usable today date back to as early as 1897. Although the current production of Oliver! doesn’t use the bridges and pulleys we find in this little room next to the orchestra pit, over the past 100 years they have been responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes, train crashes and collapsing houses…
As we finish our tour – wiser to the 300 years of history packed into every seat and room in the theatre – our tour guides treat us to one final ghost story. “Who is the Man in Grey?” someone asks. “Well, nobody knows, that’s the point,” says our Nell. But the story goes that if this mysterious but apparently friendly figure, who haunts the Upper Circle and is dressed entirely grey with a powdered wig and an eighteenth-century riding cloak, is seen at the beginning of a show’s run, it’s a very good omen for the production. Strangely though, there were no sightings of this mysterious Man during the run of the theatre’s most successful show – Miss Saigon.
For more information on the Through The Stage Door tours, click here.
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