Why Andrew Lloyd Webber plans to transform London’s oldest - and most haunted - theatre
There are – at least according to the tour guides – some 500 ghosts in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which isn’t all that surprising given there’s been a theatre on the site since 1663.
Big Lad, as the man who runs the building today is affectionately known, has seen them all. That includes the Man in Grey, who appears during matinees in a long grey coat and tricorn hat (during renovations in the 1840s, a skeleton in grey rags with a knife through his heart was discovered on the spot where the ghost disappears, through a wall on the left of the auditorium), and the one who smells of lavender (he was incontinent, and used essential oil to mask it).
Then there are the floating nuns, a legacy of the 13th-century convent from which Covent Garden takes its name (the theatre is built on its graveyard).
If all this is true, then Big Lad (real name, Michael) is likely to have a spectral riot on his hands, because at the end of tonight’s performance of 42nd Street the theatre will ‘go dark’, as thesps like to say (close down, to the rest of us), for two years.
During that time, it will be restored and reimagined for the 21st century, according to a programme of works devised by its owner, Lord Lloyd Webber, and his wife, Madeleine, trustee of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation.
The Lloyd Webbers have been working with a team of historians and designers to ensure the theatre is made, as Madeleine explains when we meet in the saloon (less spit and sawdust, more Regency ballroom), ‘fit for purpose’.
‘The age and significance of the building had almost become a noose around its neck,’ adds Rebecca Kane Burton, CEO of Lloyd Webber’s LW Theatres, which also owns The London Palladium and other historic venues.
‘But despite its history [it’s thought to be where Charles II spied Nell Gwyn, and where victory at Culloden was announced to George II], it has also been a place of firsts: the first gaslight, the first footlights.’
Top of the list for renovation are the stage – some of the machinery beneath it is still steam-powered – and the auditorium, so that the seats are closer to the actors. On the wall behind us, someone has been testing paint.
‘Andrew has spent months on that colour,’ Madeleine says. ‘He and Simon [Thurley, an architectural historian and former chief executive of English Heritage] have visited country houses of the right period all over Britain to find it.
'I was thrilled when they did, because every time I suggested something they disagreed. I shut up in the end.’
Key to the redesign are new social areas. Cecil Beaton’s Bar – My Fair Lady, for which Beaton designed the costumes, opened at the Theatre Royal with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in 1958 – takes its look from his pastel-hued fashion photography; Vinegar Yard, a narrow 17th-century alleyway behind the theatre, will become a new ‘rustic hang-out’.
Though great attention has been paid to retaining the building’s original features (architectural history is a passion of Lord Lloyd Webber’s), the reimagining of the theatre is as much about the future as the past.
Most daring of his plans for the building is that, after reopening in late 2020, it will be accessible for up to 14 hours a day, to anyone: to check emails, hold meetings, have afternoon tea or a negroni on the outdoor terrace.
Such change is, the Lloyd Webbers believe, essential to the Theatre Royal’s survival. ‘For Andrew, theatres are entertainment houses,’ Madeleine tells me.
‘He believes he must do everything possible to keep that alive. These places are like mausoleums when they’re empty. The best thing you can see in a theatre is it full of people. That’s its beating heart.’