Back to News

#LoveTheatre Day - Going Backstage At Theatre Royal Drury Lane!

Posted 17th November 2016

Happy #LoveTheatre Day one and all! Arts and cultural organisations will come together today online to celebrate the wondeful work of theatre. In honour of this, we’ve gone behind the scenes of the oldest continuously operating theatre in the world to get the lowdown on why Theatre Royal Drury Lane is so important. Drury Lane-guru, David Kerby-Kendall gives us full backstage access below:

What are some of Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s greatest traditions?

The oldest theatrical tradition in the world takes place at Drury Lane. It’s called ‘The Baddeley Cake’. Robert Baddeley was a successful actor in the eighteenth century (he played all the ‘amusing servant’ roles in Richard Sheridan’s company). When he died in 1794, he bequeathed £100 to the theatre, insisting that, on Twelfth Night every year, a cake be baked in the manner of the current production and a secret punch also be made. All the cast and staff of Drury Lane, along with the Drury Lane Society, get together and eat the cake and drink the punch, the recipe of which is kept under lock and key and passed down from manager to manager, and is still made by Rupert, our current manager. Apart from the two world wars, we have never missed a year, so the tradition has now lasted well over two hundred years. I think we may have used up the £100 by now!

Is Drury Lane haunted?

We are the most haunted theatre in the world. Some have estimated that we have five hundred ghosts! Quite how they came to that figure, I have no idea, but we certainly have a vast number, many of which have been seen by several people at the same time. For instance, the ‘Man In Grey’ has been seen by the entire casts of The Dancing Years in 1939 and Miss Saigon in 1999, as they all took their bows. This ghost hails from the 1700’s and wears a long, grey cloak and a grey trichorn hat. He only appears during matinees, walking behind the audience and disappearing through a wall in the left side of the auditorium. In 1842 we carried out our first refurbishment of the current building, knocking down the exact part of the wall that the ghost disappears through to build a doorway into a bar and found, bricked up in the wall, the body of a man; pieces of grey material hanging from his skeleton and a knife between his ribs. However, although he came to a gruesome end, he is considered to be a good omen as he only appears when shows run for a long time.

Of course, we have many, many more (Joey Grimaldi gives you a kick up the bum if you’re not trying hard enough) and we have a lot of nuns. Covent Garden used to be Convent Garden, being the garden of the nunnery on the site (the only reason we call it Covent Garden is that somebody in posterity misspelt it and left the ‘n’ out!). We were built partially on the nun’s graveyard, so some of the nun’s make a bit of a habit of appearing! (I’m here all week!).

Who have been some of the biggest stars to take to the stage?

We have had all the major stars throughout the centuries appear on our stage: Nell Gwyn, Charles Hart, David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Sarah Siddons, Dan Leno (the first pantomime dame), John Kemble, Thomas Betterton, Joey Grimaldi (Shakespeare’s most famous clown, and the inventor of modern clown make-up), and Ivor Novello, to name but a fraction of them. More recently, we have played host to Julie Andrews, Jonathan Pryce, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Why is this theatre so important?

Drury Lane is the cradle of most theatrical innovations since 1663, in Britain, Europe and around the world. Here began the Musical (Michael Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl in 1843), modern Pantomime (invented by Sir Augustus Harris in 1880’s and which saved the theatre from financial ruin), regular Rehearsals, the Iron Safety Curtain, Period Costume, the Green Room, Moving Scenery, Coloured Lighting, the Footlights, Modern Acting and Sex Equality. Before David Garrick took over in 1747, rich gentlemen could pay an extra amount of money and watch the actresses changing on the stage! Garrick had this banned and treated the actresses as being virtually equal. Incidentally, the second actress in history appeared at Drury Lane. Beaten to being the first by a French actress, Margaret Hughes became a huge hit and, within a year, the likes of Nell Gwyn were playing young men (the breeches roles).

How would you sum up Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 3 words?

The greatest theatre!

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Tours will be running again later this year.