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First Opened: 10th October 1812 (207 years ago)
Anticipated Reopening: September 2020
Original Theatre Opened: 7th May 1663
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
Telephone: 0207 087 7760
Address: Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JF
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.
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 fire was initially attributed to an electrical fault, however it was subsequently asserted that the building’s electrics were switched-off at 6pm the previous day and the fire alarm sounded at 3:20am the next morning. The auditorium and Front of House areas were saved by the lowering of the fire curtain and a fast response from fire crews. Most of the electrical system was renewed following the fire, and a new counterweight flying system was installed.
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 18-20 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 London’s West End, Drury Lane is adapting to accommodate the best productions for generations to come.
It was announced in March 2019 that Disney’s Frozen will reopen the theatre in Autumn 2020.
Notable long runs (over 1,000 performances) at Drury Lane:
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.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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