The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Catherine Street, WC2B 5JF, is an un-air conditioned theatre in Covent Garden, in Westminster, London’s, West End. The current theatre building is actually the most recent of four theatres that have been located in the same spot since 1663, and this makes the Theatre Royal the oldest theatre in London. The current building was listed Grade I in February 1958 by English Heritage.
The first incarnation of the theatre came to light after the Puritan Interregnum, which was an 11-year ban on “frivolous” pastimes, including theatre. It opened May 7, 1663, and was known as the “King’s Playhouse” by many. The original building was a wooden structure made of three tiers, 112 feet long and 59 feet wide. At maximum capacity, it could hold 700 patrons. The performances during this time typically took place around 3 p.m. in order to make use of the daylight. There was no roof over the audience pit, which oftentimes left those attending plays at the mercy of the elements.
When the first theatre was destroyed by fire in 1672, the second theatre, named the “Theatre Royale in Drury Lane,” opened in 1794. This theatre lasted almost 120 years but was demolished in 1791 to make room for a bigger theatre, which opened in 1794. This theatre only lasted 15 years, as it also burned down in 1809.
The theatre building still existing today opened on Oct. 10, 1812. It seats about 2,237 people which, despite still being considered a large theatre, makes it approximately 550 seats smaller than the previous building.
Since its opening, it has been visited by Shakespearean actors, comedians, musical composer and performers and even the Monty Python comedy troupe, who recorded a concert album there. World War II forced the theatre to temporarily close and during the war, the theatre was used as headquarters for the Entertainments National Service Association. Although the theatre suffered minor bomb damage, it reopened in 1946 with Noel Coward’s “Pacific 1860.”
Since the war, it has produced mainly musical theatre, including several Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including “Oklahoma!” In 1946, “South Pacific” in 1951 and “The King and I” in 1953. Other productions have included “My Fair Lady,” which had a five-year run beginning in 1958; “42nd Street” from 1984 to 1989; Miss Saigon from 1989 to 1999; and, more recently, “The Producers,” which closed in January 2007; a musical adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings,” which closed July 19, 2008; and “Oliver!” which began directly after the closing of “The Lord of the Rings.” The Drury Lane theatre is currently owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It is often referred to as one of the world’s most haunted theatres. One of the most famous spirits alleged to haunt the theatre is that of the “Man in Grey,” a man whose skeleton was found in a walled-up room in 1848. Other supposed ghosts within the theatre include the spirits of comedian Joe Grimaldi and actor Charles Macklin.