If you are looking to do before a show and are feeling the need to immerse yourself in the history of theatre, what better way to do it that to undertake a tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Currently home to 42nd Street, the theatre runs tours at various times throughout the week (be sure to check their website before visiting).
There has been a theatre on the site where the current building stands since the Restoration, the days of Charles II. Indeed it was here Nell Gwynn, Charles’s mistress began selling oranges before taking to the stage and becoming the toast of the town. With such a rich and diverse history, there is plenty to whet your appetite.
The tour takes in all parts of the theatre, From front of house, to the Royal Box, a tunnel underneath the theatre which dates back to the 1600s and even below the stage. If you are lucky, as you go around the venue, you will get to see glimpses of the current production, including the cast. While sat in the auditorium, Sheena Easton walked across the stage and gave us all a friendly wave.
But if you miss out on seeing some of the current residents, never fear, there are plenty of former ones milling about. For example, if you happen to be up in the circle watching a performance, have a look out for a man in grey. It is said that he walks along the aisle and often makes an appearance if he thinks the show is good and will be a long runner. After making his way along the stairs, he turns and vanishes through a wall. When that wall was remodelled many years ago to make way for a new bar, part of it was taken down. Bricked into the wall was found a skeleton with shreds of grey cloth hanging off him and a dagger between his ribs. Perhaps the man in grey was an actor killed by a jealous rival. If you spot him, why not ask him?
He is just one of many who haunt the various parts of this enormous complex. But it’s not all about those who have shuffled off this mortal coil. You will stand in the retiring room used by the royal family and discover which royals had a fight in the rotunda leading to their being two royal boxes in the theatre. It was in the retiring room that an actor, who so impressed the king with his performance, was summoned after the curtain and knighted there and then – with a prop sword.
The theatre also boasts the claim of being the longest continuously running playhouse in the world, preforming even while the theatre was being rebuilt. It is also home to a lot of firsts. The first theatre to use an iron safety curtain, first to use coloured light and an early pioneer of equal rights.
At one point, men were able to pay to see the actresses get changed, a practise that was stopped by David Garrick when he took over the management of the theatre. Legend has it, he ripped up the contacts (for the actresses had it written into their contract that they would do this) and had new ones drafted.
There are tales to tell and stories to uncover at every turn in this theatre that has had a colourful and fully theatrical history. It is in the heart of London’s theatre scene, both historically and emotionally. Many actors long to play ‘The Lane’ and after a journey round it on one of these tours, you will be able to appreciate what is so special about it.