Theatre Royal Drury Lane - fourth incarnation of a very old theatre


Theatre Royal Drury Lane - fourth incarnation of a very old theatre

London's Drury Lane theatre sits on the oldest site in the world in continuous theatrical use. The current theatre dates from 1812, has a capacity of over 2200, and is arguably the most famous theatre in the world.

The first theatre was constructed on this site in 1663 under a Royal Charter from King Charles II. The original building was only as big as the present-day stage, and was destroyed by fire in 1672. Nell Gwynn, who became one of Charles II's mistresses was an orange seller and then an actress here. It was during Charles II's reign that women were permitted to perform on the stage for the first time.

A second theatre on the site opened its doors in 1674 and remained in operation for 117 years. David Garrick was one of its managers.

Garrick’s successor Richard Sheridan oversaw the demolition of the ageing building and replaced it with a revamped and resized incarnation – designed to seat 3,600 people – in 1794.

Unfortunately for Sheridan, despite installing the world’s first safety curtain with water tanks above it, and billing his theatre as a 'Fireproof Theatre', his building burnt down just 15 years later. But from the ashes arose the current theatre, designed by Benjamin Wyatt, in 1812.

The theatre has seen many stars of different eras including Henry Irving, Edmund Kean, Macready, Ellen Terry, Dan Leno, Grimaldi, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Ivor Novello, Michael Crawford and Ginger Rogers. Kings George I and III both survived assassination attempts at the theatre, and, ironically, it was here too that God Save The King was first sung in 1741 and Rule Britannia in 1750.

The interior is very grand with a double staircase, rotunda, numerous bars and rooms, and many sumptuous boxes.

The two sides of the Theatre are given the names King’s Side and Prince’s Side. This unique feature goes back to the time of King George III who was not on good terms with his son.  To avoid confrontation, each was directed to their own side. This has resulted in the theatre possessing two Royal Boxes on either side of the auditorium.

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is one of the world’s most haunted theatres. The most famous ghost is the Man in Grey, who appears during matinees in a long grey coat and tricorn hat. During renovations in the 1840s, a skeleton in grey rags with a knife through his heart was discovered on the spot where the ghost disappears. The appearance of almost any one of the handful of ghosts that are said to frequent the theatre signals good luck for an actor or production.

The theatre is currently owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Further reading

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