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Architects: Christopher Wren (second theatre), Henry Holland (third theatre), John Linnell (third theatre assistant architect), Benjamin Dean Wyatt (current theatre)
Current (Fourth) Theatre Opened: 10th October 1812 (209 years ago)
Reopened after major refurbishment: 27th August 2021
First Theatre Opened: 7th May 1663
Second Theatre Opened: 26th March 1674
Third Theatre Opened: 21st April 1794
Former Names: The Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, The King’s Playhouse, The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane
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 World War II 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 (main floor) 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 was expected to last 18-20 months. Access to the auditorium was to be greatly improved with increased toilet facilities and disabled access introduced. The stagehouse would be upgraded with a new grid and flying system. The raked (sloped) stage would be leveled to accommodate large-scale modern productions, and the theatre’s historic substage machinery would be removed after being documented. While it is sad that the historic machinery was 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 had to adapt to accommodate the biggest and best productions for generations to come.
A large prop – yet practical – bell is hung backstage in the fly floor area high above the stage, most likely left over from the 1972 production “Gone With The Wind”. Tradition has it that the bell is rung with the applause at the end of the final performance of a show’s run at the theatre. The bell was last rung on 5th January 2019 at the closing performance of “42nd Street”. The bell remained within the building during LW Theatres’ renovation and the tradition will be continued to ring it during the curtain call of final performances at the theatre.
It was announced in March 2019 that Disney’s Frozen would reopen the theatre. Previews commenced 27th August 2021 (delayed from Autumn 2020 and then Spring 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) with the official opening slated for 8th September 2021.
Following a closure of approximately 30 months, the building reopened on 23rd July 2021 following its £60 million restoration, with free public access to The Garden, the Cecil Beaton Cocktail Bar, and the Rotunda Champagne Bar located in the base of the theatre’s magnificent rotunda.
With landscaping designed by Cameron Landscapes, The Garden has soaring high ceilings, oversized chandeliers, and indoor/outdoor seating. The Garden offers a seasonal and simple curated menu. The Cecil Beaton Bar is named after high-society photographer and renowned costume designer Cecil Beaton. The elegant bar and lounge is open until late and does not require reservations. The Grand Saloon will open later in 2021. Lots more details are available on The Lane website .
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.
Guided Tours are given in English and last approximately 1 hour. There are 20 spaces available per tour. Tours meet in the main foyer/lobby. Theatre Royal Drury Lane is a working theatre, so no two tours are the same. Sometimes the route will need to change due to other events taking place in the building. This is a walking tour with numerous steps and backstage areas so comfortable shoes are recommended.
Tour schedule: Wed & Fri: 10:30am, 12pm, 2:30pm. Thu & Sat: 10:30am, 12pm. Sun: 10:30am. Tickets £18.50 (no booking fee).
Photographs copyright © 2002-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.
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