The history of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

By | Posted on 22-Aug-2018

The history of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Find out more about the history of London’s oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

When was it built?

The theatre that we see today was built in 1812, however, this is the fourth theatre at the same location and the first was built in 1663 on the orders of Restoration-era dramatist and theatre manager Thomas Killigrew. The theatre was built at a cost of £2,400 and was small compared with the present venue, it would likely fit in the space of the current theatre’s stage.

The venue was originally known as the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street after the road that it faced, which is now called Catherine Street. Today’s building was designed by Benjamin Wyatt and is the only theatre in London with two royal boxes in the auditorium.

No other site in Britain has a longer history of continuous theatre use than Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

What was the first performance?

The theatre opened with a production of The Humorous Lieutenant on 7th May 1663. Today’s version of the theatre opened on 10th October 1812 with a production of Hamlet.

Where is it located?

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is located on Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JF. The nearest tube stations are Covent Garden (Piccadilly Line), Holborn (Central/ Piccadilly Lines) Charing Cross (Northern/Bakerloo Lines) and Temple (Circle and District Lines). If arriving by train the nearest rail station is Charing Cross.

Who owns it?

The current owner is Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber via LW Theatres, formerly known as Really Useful Theatres.

What is the seat capacity?

The seating capacity of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is 2,196 over 4 levels – Stalls, Royal Circle, Grand Circle and Balcony.

What shows have played there?

The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein played in succession from 1947 starting with Oklahoma!, Carousel in 1950, South Pacific in 1951 and The King and I closed the series with a three year run ending in 1956.

My Fair Lady played 2,281 performances at the venue from 1958, starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. It wasn’t until the arrival of the toe-tapping 42nd Street in 1984 that the theatre reignited the flame for long-running shows. The production played for 5 years and returned several years later in March 2017 to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The 1984 run was followed by Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon in 1989, which went on to become the theatre’s longest-running tenant, playing over 4000 performances, closing 10 years later in 1999.

Interesting facts:

  • King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn is said to have trodden the boards of the theatre.
  • The venue boasts London’s biggest stage.
  • Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has the only substantial Georgian theatre fabric in London, with the entrance façade being the earliest surviving in London on a working theatre.
  • The theatre has been called one of the world’s most haunted theatres. For more about its theatre ghosts click here.

Photo credit: Andrew Dupont (Flickr)