For Travel Writers Tales

By Chris McBeath

If discovering the secrets of superstitions of some of London’s grandest stages is a mouthwatering temptation, then the West End is where it’s at.
There’s a ghost or two in London’s oldest, continuously running theatre – Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

Actor Charles Macken still nudges actors to recall forgotten lines, and watch for the man in grey – Row D, Royal Circle. But should you miss them, there’s still plenty to fuel the imagination.

When Charles II established Theatre Royal on Drury Lane (1660’s), it marked the end of the Puritan era during which “sinful” theatre was banned as a way of retaining church attendance. The theatre quickly became a leader of its day. It was the first to introduce safety curtains against and interior let by thousands of candles; ironically the first burned down. It allowed women to play female roles – and the reverse.

Dan Leno invented the role of Panto Dame at Drury Lane. Unfortunately, he was incontinent so would douse his costume with oil of lavender, the scent of which still wafts across the stage on occasion, in ghostly fashion. Among the many unique features are two royal entrances and two royal boxes, thus preventing King George III and his wayward son, the Prince of Wales, from feuding in public.

Most intriguing, though, are the underground tunnels. One led to the pub where Nel Gwyn (Charles II’s mistress) plied her trade, while the other went down to the docks. Sailors would travel it to work for extra money as backstage crew, to “fly the flats” and “hoist the rigging” – nautical terms that are still used in theatre today. And please, never whistle in a theatre. Since sailors communicated to one another by whistling across the ship’s deck, they naturally used it to cue scenery changes. A wayward whistle could well prompt ghosts of former crews to drop a stage weight unexpectedly. Or so goes superstition.

Lavishly elegant in style, story and history, the Royal Opera House is one of the busiest performance spaces in London. Home to the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet that run side-by-side productions year-round, this backstage tour reveals an understated appreciation for the two most strenuous disciplines in the performing arts. To accommodate this symbiotic relationship, the stage changes no less than four times in any 24-hour period. Complete sets and floors are exchanged within minutes enabling each discipline to rehearse and/or perform a repertoire of two ballets and two operas every day.

Colour-coded corridors help navigate the maze of working areas spread over three acres in and around Covent Garden – blue for stage, red for production, yellow for music and so on. Head for the fourth floor and you’ll be watching dancers practicing their arabesques – a special privilege. Every turn in this tour reveals another curiosity such as the mirrors in Queen Victoria’s Royal Box positioned to reflect the performance to the Ladies in Waiting who sat facing the Queen, not the stage.

Ticket Tip? Because the auditorium is not carpeted, the sound in the sky-high seats is better than in the stalls.

Empty main auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall.

Built in 1904 to be the biggest, brashest, most talked about playhouse in London, London Coliseum doesn’t disappoint. Originally larger than Drury Lane (which originally held 4,000 patrons on six levels), this Romanesque-styled building was set to impress from its exterior façade (look for loin clothed young men carved into the cornices), and its revolving dome, to an interior of mosaic tile floors and ceilings. At one time, there was even an aquarium in the middle and running the height of the stairwell.

As for the variety shows themselves, it seems that imagination was the only limit. Nowhere else could you see a derby with live horses racing against a rotating stage, or a real cricket match between Middlesex and Surrey to bring a bit of summer to the winter.

The tour includes all manner of colourful anecdotes about the building’s many incarnations, including with its current occupant, the English national Opera. Unlike the Royal Opera House nearby, the Coliseum’s space is so excruciatingly tight that sets are broken down, sometimes nightly, and stored in trucks parked behind the theatre.

Hottest tip? If a show is sold out, try for one of the side boxes. Their proximity to the stage and orchestra is unparalleled and more than make up for the partially restricted views.

Photos (in the order they appear):

  1. Header – Royal Albert Hall London
  2. Royal Opera House Auditorium-Photo Sim Canetty Clarke
  3. Royal Opera House-Dye-Shop-Photo Sim Canetty Clarke
  4. London Coliseum-Porgy & Bess-photo-ENOWJK
  5. Royal Opera Auditorium Lighting Box-Photo Sim Canetty Clarke
  6. Royal Opera House Tutu Poles-Photo Sim Canetty Clarke
  7. Royal Albert Hall Stage-Photo Chris McBeath
  8. Royal Albert Hall Empty Auditorium-Photo Stephen Frak
  9. London Coliseum At Conductor Podium-Photo Chris McBeath