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Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Former Names: The Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, The King’s Playhouse, The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane

Status: Closed for major refurbishment, reopening in 2020

Website: http://www.theatreroyaldrurylane.co.uk/ Open website in new window

Telephone: 0207 087 7760 Call 0207 087 7760

Address: Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JF Show address in Google Maps (new window)

 Overview

The current theatre building dates from 1812, however it is the fourth theatre building to have occupied the site, making this the oldest theatre site in London still in use today. The Drury Lane stage is the largest of any West End theatre and it has hosted many multi-year engagements, including a record-breaking 10-year run of “Miss Saigon”. The theatre is currently owned by noted composer Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s LW Theatres group.

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is one of the most important theatres in the world, with the site having been in theatrical use since 1663. The right to present dramatic entertainments dates from the Royal Patent granted by King Charles II to Thomas Killigrew in 1662, which is still in the possession of the theatre.

To this day the theatre’s name confuses those unfamiliar with it as its entrance is on Catherine Street...whereas Drury Lane is to the rear of the theatre.

First theatre: Theatre Royal in Bridges Street (1663-1672)
Present-day Catherine Street was originally called Bridges or Brydges Street. The new Theatre Royal opened on 7th May 1663 and was accessed from Brydges street, so became known by the name of the street accessing the theatre’s main entrance. It was built by dramatist Thomas Killigrew under Royal Charter from Charles II, and was alternatively known as the King’s Playhouse. The Great Plague of London forced the theatre to close, by order of the Crown, on 5th June 1665. It reopened roughly 18 months later featuring a widened stage, however burned to the ground in a fire on 25th January 1672.

Second theatre: Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (1674-1791)
A new theatre was built which opened in 1674 and is believed to have been designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren. The Bristol Old Vic (completed 1766) was modeled on the 1674 theatre and designed by David Garrick’s master carpenter at Drury Lane, James Saunders, so affords a good indication of what the 1674 Drury Lane interior looked like. The architect Robert Adam later remodeled the external façade and auditorium in 1775. From 1747 to 1776 the theatre was managed by David Garrick. By 1791 the theatre was in dire need of updating and it was decided the only option was demolition.

Third theatre (1794-1809)
Henry Holland, with some assistance by John Linnell, designed the latest theatre for manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and it was the largest theatre to have stood on the Drury Lane site catering for up to 3,611 patrons. It opened on 21st April 1794 with a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Except for churches, it was the tallest building in London. The auditorium featured a semicircular arrangement of four tiers of boxes, including proscenium boxes at the sides of the 45ft wide forestage. The proscenium boxes were supported by pilasters featuring candelabra and circular mirrors 5ft in diameter, the mirrors said to produce a pleasing reflected view of the audience. There were two galleries above the uppermost box level. The stage itself was large at 83ft wide by 92ft deep. Fire prevention features included an iron safety curtain and tanks of water on the roof, however the theatre burned-down on 24th February 1809. Owner Richard Brinsley Sheridan allegedly watched the flames from the street while sipping a glass of wine and said “Surely a man may be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside”.

Current Building (1812)

The current building, designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt, opened on 10th October 1812. In 1820 the portico that still stands at the theatre’s front entrance on Catherine Street was added, and in 1831 the colonnade running down the Russell Street side of the building was added.

The entrance lobby opens into a central rotunda that is open to the higher levels with a gallery one level above. On either side of the rotunda are symmetrical grand staircases leading to the Royal Circle and Grand Saloon, the latter of which is located above the main lobby.

The House Left side of the theatre is designated as the King’s Side, and House Right is the Prince’s Side. Following the unveiling of the third theatre where King George III attempted to box the Prince Regent’s ears, slapping him around the face, the theatre created separate sides to distance the warring King George III from the Prince Regent (later to become King George IV). To this day the theatre maintains two royal boxes, keeping the left for ‘the King’ and the right for ‘the Prince’, which are both adorned with royal crests.

On 25th March 1908 a fire destroyed the stage and backstage areas. The auditorium and Front of House was saved by the safety curtain and a fast response from fire crews.

In 1922 a major interior renovation was undertaken at a cost of £150,000, resulting in the current auditorium arrangement of four levels of Stalls, Royal Circle, Grand Circle, and Gallery, accommodating just over 2,000 patrons. Interior decoration was by specialist ornamental plasterwork company Clark and Fenn, in what has become one of their most notable interiors.

The theatre was dark during the Second World War when it was used as the home base for the Entertainments National Service Association. On 15th October 1940 the theatre took a direct hit from a gas bomb which tore through floors to the Stalls level of the auditorium, however did not explode. The theatre reopened post-war on 19th December 1946.

Since 2005 Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Theatre Group, now LW Theatres, has owned the theatre. On 7th May 2013, Lloyd-Webber revealed a £4 million restoration of the theatre to mark its 350th anniversary. The detailed restoration returned the public areas of the Rotunda, Royal Staircases, and Grand Saloon, all of which were part of the 1810 theatre, to their original Regency style.

In late 2017 Westminster Council granted permission for an extensive renovation of the theatre which commenced in January 2019 and is expected to last 18 months. Access to the auditorium will be greatly improved with increased toilet facilities and disabled access introduced. The stagehouse will be upgraded with a new flying system. The stage, currently raked, will be leveled to accommodate large-scale modern productions, and the theatre’s historic substage machinery will be documented before being removed. While it is sad that the historic machinery will be removed, theatres are not museums and must adapt to accommodate the needs of modern theatrical productions. As the largest stage in the West End, Drury Lane is adapting to accommodate the best productions for generations to come.

Notable long runs at Drury Lane:

Performance numbers were provided by the theatre; some online reports have conflicting numbers however their source is not known.

 Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances

Movies

Television

Documentary

Award Shows

 How do I visit the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane?

NOTE: Tours will be on hiatus from 6th January 2019 due to major renovation work. Tours will return in 2020.

Tours run most days when technical work or rehearsals are not running and cover Front of House, Royal areas, and Backstage. Tours last approximately 1 hour and meet in the main lobby. Tickets cost £10.50 or £8.50 for Children/Seniors. Spaces are limited so advance booking is recommended. Booking line 020 7087 7748, or online at the theatre’s tour website Link opens in new window, which also includes additional information about the tour. Note that there are a lot of stairs on the tour, and that tour content sometimes varies due to rehearsals and restrictions on access to various areas of the theatre.

Upcoming Special Events
Theatre History - The Last Bridge Test

Theatre History - The Last Bridge Test (26th January 2019, 11am)

The 120-year old historic stage machinery installed under the stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane will be removed as part of a massive renovation project starting in early January 2019.

We’ll be streaming live from our Facebook page sometime between 11am and 1pm (UTC) the final time our historic Victorian sub-stage bridges will be used before they are removed from the theatre.

You will get to witness theatre history! Don’t miss it.

For more info see: https://www.facebook.com/events/330932631085547/ Link opens in new window

 Further Reading

Online

Books

 Technical Information

Flying System
Grid Height 70ft
General Information
Seating Capacity 2,196 (Stalls 882, Royal Circle 413, Grand Circle 446, Balcony 421, Boxes 34)
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Width 42ft
Stage Depth 80ft
Stage Rake 1:24 for the first 45ft of depth, then flat to the rear stage wall
Stage Width 77ft
Historic Photos & Documents

Historic files shown here may be subject to copyright; review our “Fair Use” statement here.

 Photos of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Exterior

The exterior appearance of the theatre has remained largely unchanged since the fourth theatre building was completed in 1810, aside from the addition of the Catherine Street portico in 1820 and the Russell Street colonnade in 1831.


Front of House

The central rotunda leads to the grand staircases of the King’s Side (House Left) and the Prince’s Side (House Right). Both staircases lead to the Grand Saloon, located above the entrance lobby, which affords access to the upper gallery level of the rotunda. The lower level in the rotunda leads to the Stalls via the Stalls Bar.

The main entrance to the theatre is from Catherine Street and features the Box Office, 1918 Telephone Booth, and a grand display board listing the theatre’s Patent Holders, Lesees, and Managers since 1663.


Understage Machinery

The understage machinery comprises six bridges each 40ft long and 6ft deep. The rearmost pair of bridges (DC electric) were manufactured by Drew Bear & Perks in 1899; the middle pair of bridges (hydraulic) were manufactured by Carl Dengg in Vienna in 1896; the front pair of bridges (DC electric) were manufactured by Lift & Engineering Co. in 1922. All the bridges rise above (up to 8ft) and fall far below stage level. The electric bridges stay level however the hydraulic bridges are pivoted with independent controls for each hydraulic ram, allowing them to slant along their length.

Productions playing at the theatre which don’t utilize the stage bridges generally have to shore them up to support the weight of the heavier set pieces now common in large-scale West End productions. The yellow metalwork in the photos are the bridge strengthening supports for the 2017-19 production of “42nd Street”.

As part of a massive refurbishment project starting in January 2019, and to enable the theatre to continue to attract the biggest shows to the biggest stage in the West End, the stagehouse will be brought up to modern standards including an entirely new grid and flying system, leveling of the raked stage, and removal of the understage machinery.

Extensive efforts were made to find a new home for the historic stage machinery. Sadly, despite an international search, no permanent home was found. Before removal, the stage machinery will be temporarily recommissioned in order to be fully documented (photography, video, 3D modeling) for the preservation record. Some components will be temporarily stored at Unusual Rigging for further analysis and documentation...possibly longer-term storage. Ultimately, an informative exhibition about the stage machinery, probably including a scale model, will be on display when the theatre reopens.


All photographs copyright © 2002-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com. For licensing and/or re-use contact me here.



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