It’s panto season in the UK and theatres are celebrating packed houses while behind the scenes, the players will go through their superstitious rituals in one of the most paranormal-friendly professionals. At the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane the likes of Michael McIntyre might want to add an extra lucky charm to their routine, because this is supposed to be the most haunted theatre in the world.
For ghosts you need history, and the Theatre Royal has plenty. Ever since it opened in 1663, when theatre was a bawdy, brawling affair, the biggest acting names of their day have strode its boards. Have some of them continued their runs into the after-life in this splendid old building?
The link with royalty goes right back to the beginning. They’ve had so many crowned heads through the turnstiles at Drury Lane that there are two royal boxes. Every monarch since Charles II, who met Nell Gwynne here, has popped in and the National Anthem – God Save the Queen – was first sung here.
After a short break to sweep up the ashes and rebuild after the Great Fire of London in 1666, Drury Lane started its unbroken 341-year run as one of London’s top theatres.
A World Class Cast
The names that have appeared on the Drury Lane stage are legends in the theatre world.
David Garrick, who all but invented modern theatre, was followed in the role of manager by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose The School for Scandal is still played today. Lord Byron – “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – was on the board for a time, and Edmund Kean started his rise to stardom with his Shylock.
The greatest ever clown, Joseph Grimildi, gave his farewell performance here and music-hall legend Dan Leno helped cement pantomime as a popular seasonal entertainment.
This cavalcade of stars continued into the 20th century. Anna Neagle, Paul Robeson, Noel Coward, Mary Martin, Ivor Novello, Howard Keel, Herbert Lom, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Crawford, Denis Quilley, Sheila Hancock…
It’s also now a major-league comedy and music venue, hosting the likes of Mr McIntyre, French and Saunders, ABC, KT Tunstall and even John Travolta in an on-stage interview.
Stars From Beyond The Grave
Some of those names are still with us, but not all of the actors at this most famous West End venue are of this world.
Dan Leno – who invented the idea of the dame in panto – stalks the corridors, still drenched in lavender oil. Nell Gwynne, of course, has been reported, a Grimilda is one of the spiritual stars of the place.
The ghost with the highest billing was no star though. The Man in Grey was just a punter. His visit to the Theatre Royal was his last night out and when he appears now he’s still in his 18th century finery, complete with wig and cloak.
The skeleton behind the spirit was discovered during building works in the 1840s, when a wall cavity was opened revealing a body with a knife in the chest. The ghost is said to walk a particular path around the fourth row in the Upper Circle, and like many of Drury Lane’s ghosts he’s said to be a friendly, even lucky presence.
Less happy is the spirit of Charles Macklin, who killed a fellow actor with a cane through the eye.
A couple of ghosts don’t even merit a name, but their nicknames tell the story.
The Helping Hand Ghost (Leno say some, Grimildi say others) lends his theatrical skill to struggling actors, pushing them into better positions and giving them a friendly pat when they get a laugh.
The Jacket Tugging ghost does just what you might think. He likes dancing girls too so they say.
Roger Clarke is the acknowledged expert on the ghosts of Drury Lane, and he’s found eight different categories of spirits in this historic place. Some are just noises – possibly the sound of an unexploded bomb crashing into the theatre during the Blitz.
Even sceptics pick up something in the Theatre Royal. And even today. Clive Carter was playing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2014 when his dressing room TV started switching channels of its own accord.
Here’s to a successful show for Michael McIntyre at Drury Lane this week – break a leg, Michael! – and here’s to packed houses for its ghostly cast to entertain.