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:
Miss Saigon ran for 4,263 performances from 1989 to 1999 and holds the record for the longest run at the theatre.
My Fair Lady ran for 2,281 performances over the course of five and a half years (1958-1963).
42nd Street ran for 1,824 performances from 1984 to 1989.
Oklahoma! ran for 1,375 performances from 1947 to 1953.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ran for 1,293 performances over the course of 3 years and 7 months (2013-2017).
A Chorus Line ran for 1,113 performances from 1976 to 1979.
Performance numbers were provided by the theatre; some online reports have conflicting numbers however their source is not known.
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 , 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.
The Theatrecrafts website on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane contains a selection of photographs not seen elsewhere, links to lighting plans from past shows, a detailed timeline of shows which have played at the theatre plus historical events, and links to information about technical equipment installed at the theatre.