Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
The first theatre was erected in 1663 by Thomas Killigrew, who had received a patent to do so from King Charles II.
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

We still operate under this Royal Charter today and a copy is proudly displayed, although the original is now in the safe-keeping of the nearby Theatre Museum. This building, about the current size of the present stage, was visited by Samuel Pepys and was where Charles II first encountered Nell Gwynne, who made her debut on the stage in 1665. It was short-lived, being destroyed by fire in 1672.

Killigrew built a second theatre, opening in 1674 and remaining 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. David Garrick became the manager in 1747 and introduced many reforms which have shaped modern theatre. He ruled the roost for 29 years and was succeeded in 1776 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose best known play, The School for Scandal, received its first performance here in 1777.

Sheridan oversaw the demolition of the ageing building and its replacement by a larger theatre to seat 3,600 people, designed by Henry Holland, in 1794. It opened in March with a performance of sacred music by Handel because theatrical performances were banned during Lent. This building boasted the world’s first safety curtain but still burned down only 15 years later, bringing Sheridan’s management, and personal fortune, to the ground along with it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Lane was taken over for almost a decade by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with a succession of ground-breaking hits. Oklahoma! (1947-50) originally starred Howard Keel. Carousel (1950-1951), Mary Martin in South Pacific (1951-1953) and The King and I (1953-1956) with Valerie Hobson and Herbert Lom were all big hits. A revival of The Boys from Syracuse (1963) with Bob Monkhouse and Ronnie Corbett did not fare so well.

My Fair Lady (1958-1963) opened with the original Broadway cast of Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, and Cecil Beaton’s costume designs, so familiar from the film version. Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of the show transferred here from the National Theatre in 2001 starring Jonathan Pryce.

Camelot (1964-1965) was an enormous spectacle and Mary Martin returned to the theatre in Hello, Dolly! (1965-1967). Dora Bryan took over the leading role in 1966 to great acclaim. Ginger Rogers flew in for another Jerry Herman extravaganza in Mame (1969) and Harold Fielding produced the surprise hit The Great Waltz (1970-1972) and a musical version of Gone with the Wind (1972).

Michael Crawford became a star overnight in Billy (1974-1976), with Roy Castle succeeding him, and Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line (1976-1979) opened with its American company before equally talented British chorines became the ‘singular sensation’.

The original production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1980) starred Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1981) was deemed a little too risqué and The Pirates of Penzance (1982), in a newly scored production by Joseph Papp, was a genuine crowd pleaser. 42nd Street (1984-1989) made tap dancing fashionable again and was enormously popular.

Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon (1989-1999) holds the record as the theatre’s longest running show, with a total of 4,263 performances. The helicopter landed at almost every one of them!

More recently the theatre has hosted The Witches of Eastwick (2000), The League of Gentlemen (2001), The Stars of the Bolshoi (2001) and Trevor Nunn’s award-winning National Theatre production of Anything Goes (2003). The Producers (2004) kept the building alive with laughter for over two years while The Lord of the Rings (2007) continues the theatre’s tradition of presenting the best and newest trends in musical theatre and uses cutting edge technology to create a stage spectacle reminiscent of the late Victorian and Edwardian productions so popular with the masses.

Since December 2005 the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has been owned 100% by the Really Useful Group Limited.

Mark Fox, with thanks to George Hoare

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