The History of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane London
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane becomes the home of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory in 2013. The show previews from the 18th May and opens for the shows World premiere on the 25th June 2013.
The current Theatre Royal on Drury Lane is the most recent of four theatres built on the same plot, the first of which opened in 1663, making it the oldest theatre in London. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is a Grade I listed building.
The first theatre, known as the Theatre Royal, Bridges Street, saw performances by Nell Gwynne and Charles Hart; indeed, it was where King Charles II first met Gwynne. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane still operates under the Royal Charter today and a copy is proudly displayed.
After the first theatre was destroyed by fire in 1672, Christopher Wren, the famous architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed and built a larger theatre on the same spot, which opened in 1674. Infamously actor Charles Macklin murdered a fellow actor in the Green Room. The renowned actor David Garrick became the manager in 1747 and introduced many reforms which have shaped modern theatre.
This second theatre lasted for 117 years before being demolished in 1791, to make way for a larger theatre with a 3,600 seating capacity which opened in 1794, with a performance of sacred music by Handel because theatrical performances were banned during Lent. This theatre boasted the world’s first safety curtain. In 1809 this third theatre was destoyed by fire.
The present theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, opened in 1812. It was designed by Benjamin Wyatt and the theatre and auditorium today are much as they were at that first performance. The building was funded by a group of financiers recruited by the brewer Samuel Whitbread, and Lord Byron was Chairman of the Board.
Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean became a star at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane with his performances of Shylock. Over the years other notable performances included the farewell performance of Joseph Grimaldi, the great clown, and comedians Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell starring in a series of spectacular pantomimes.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane became famous throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th century for producing spectacular happenings on stage: chariot races in Ben Hur, the Derby and an earthquake in The Hope, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in Youth, a train crash in The Whip, and a blazing pirate ship in The New Moon starring the appropriately named Evelyn Lake. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane also staged sinking ships, air balloons, underwater fights, the Chelsea Flower Show, Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the flooding of Paris and Alpine avalanches. In 2013, another impressive happening, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, makes its entrance.
In the 1920’s highlights included American singer and actress Edith Day (1924-1927) who went on to head the casts of The Desert Song (1927-1928), in which Anna Neagle also made her stage debut, and Show Boat (1928) with Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson.
The 1930’s brought Noël Coward huge success with Cavalcade (1931). The cast of 400 included a young John Mills and scenes included a troopship setting sail, the relief of Mafeking and Queen Victoria’s funeral. This success was followed by Noel Coward’s ill-fated post-war musical Pacific 1860 (1946) starred Mary Martin which closed after only four months.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane also staged most of Ivor Novello’s major theatre successes. Glamorous Night (1935), Careless Rapture (1936), Crest of the Wave (1937) and The Dancing Years (1939) were all at the Theatre Royal; Novello starred in all of these shows and in true Theatre Royal Drury Lane style included spectacularly staged scenes in the works, including sinking ships, a fair on Hampstead Heath, a train crash and an earthquake.
During the Second World War the theatre in London was the home base for ENSA and received a direct hit from a gas bomb which, fortunately, did not explode but did destroy the rear of the auditorium.
After the war the Theatre Royal Drury Lane became home to musical legends Rodgers and Hammerstein for almost a decade. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had a succession hit musicals including Oklahoma! (1947-50) starring Howard Keel (later to find T.V. fame in his twilight years starring Dallas), Carousel (1950-1951), South Pacific (1951-1953) starring Mary Martin and The King and I (1953-1956) starring Valerie Hobson and Herbert Lom (Peter Sellars’ nemesis in the Pink Panther films).
My Fair Lady (1958-1963) starred Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, with costume designs by Cecil Beaton, who dressed Royalty in his lifetime. Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of My Fair Lady transferred to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from the Royal National Theatre in 2001 starring Jonathan Pryce and Denis Waterman.
In the 1960’s Camelot (1964-1965) was a great success followed by Hello, Dolly! (1965-1967) starring Mary Martin on her return to the London theatre. Dora Bryan took over the leading role in 1966 to great acclaim.
Ginger Rogers starred in the Jerry Herman extravaganza Mame in 1969 and Harold Fielding produced both The Great Waltz (1970-1972) and a musical version of Gone with the Wind (1972).
Michael Crawford made his name in the hit musical Billy (1974-1976), prior to his T.V. role as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Roy Castle succeeded Michael Crawford in Billy. Now revived at the London Palladium, A Chorus Line played after Billy and ran until 1979.
Stephen Sondheim’s show Sweeney Todd opened in London in 1980 starring Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1981) and The Pirates of Penzance (1982) both had brief runs, then for the rest of the decade came the hit musical 42nd Street (1984-1989).
Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Boubil and Schonberg’s musical Miss Saigon (1989-1999) holds the record as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s longest running show, with a total of 4,263 performances. Since then, recent shows at the theatre include The Witches of Eastwick (2000), The League of Gentlemen (2001), The Stars of the Bolshoi (2001) and Trevor Nunn’s award-winning Royal National Theatre production of Anything Goes (2003). The Producers came from Broadway, starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, and ran from 2004 to 2006.
Since 2005 the Theatre Royal Drury Lane has been owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s the Really Useful Group Limited.
A huge show in London was The Lord of the Rings (2007) using cutting edge technology and spectacular staging, though sadly the show didn’t prove too popular with audiences.
Shrek the musical (2011-2013), the stage adaptation of the film, entertained families for over a year, closing in February 2013 to make way for Charlie.
Other notable performers at the Theatre Royal over the years include the Monty Python team, who recorded a concert album there, and international pop superstar Elton John.
Will Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the musical join the list of iconic shows at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane? Click here to buy tickets which are on sale now to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.