Nell Gwyn, Samuel Pepys, Sheridan and Garrick are just a few of the famous names intimately bound up with the "Tragical, Comical-magical Historie of the Oldest Operating Playhouse in the World" - the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This "Historie" is presented daily by two versatile actors as they lead their small audience through the labyrinthine corridors, royal rooms, plush auditorium, backstage mechanics and spooky undercroft of the theatre. Drury Lane was first built by a notorious fraudster under one of two theatre licences granted by Charles II in 1660 marking the end of Puritanism. Instantly popular, the theatre became a centre for serious plays, ambitious spectacle, and theatrical innovation.
Something for children
Waiting in the foyer, we are brought immediately to attention by the truly theatrical entrance of a white-haired actor. He welcomes us fulsomely to Drury Lane, offers an amusing potted history and points out that the theatre is divided into two halves, with two royal boxes. This is the result of a right royal punch-up between mad King George III and his drunken son. And it isn't only the royals who have gone a bit wild here. Pepys used to attend in a broad-brimmed hat to protect him from the spit and orange peel that rained down from the cheaper seats, and in one 50-year period the theatre saw six full-blown riots. Just as we are getting accustomed to our thespian guide, an old-fashioned Mrs Mop, with oversized bosom and hair in curlers, bursts in waving her feather-duster. We are entrusted to "Margaret" who "sneaks us into" the senior royal box and lets us sit in the Royal Retiring Room in chairs used by four King Georges, an Edward, a William and Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II. On the grand staircase we meet the elegant bewigged figure of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright and manager of Drury Lane, who rebuilt the theatre to make it bigger, better and (he hoped) more profitable. He introduced the iron safety curtain too, only to watch helplessly as the building burned. It was rebuilt in its present form in 1812.
Something for adults
Nell Gwyn ("the first instance of the casting couch") now appears with a basket of oranges - the Restoration equivalent of interval ice creams - and leads us into the depths of the building. "The Tunnel" survived the fire and dates from little more than 50 years after Shakespeare's time. We are shown entrances to other tunnels (long since closed off), one leading to Nell's house and one to the river. The latter was built so that stage "crew" - so called because most were sailors - could reach the theatre easily. The maritime connection also explains terms such as "docks" for scenery and "rigging" the stage, and the superstition that you mustn't whistle in the theatre: it interfered with the sailors' communication. We hear about the theatre's ghosts - one friendly, another thought to be an 18th-century actor who killed a fellow player in a row over a wig. David Garrick, actor-manager extraordinaire, joins us to explain the vast 19th-century hydraulics that still lift the stage (and on one occasion, a century ago, six live horses), before leading us back to the foyer. We are left - as befits an afternoon at the theatre - in a thoroughly good mood.
The theatre is in the heart of Covent Garden surrounded by bars, restaurants and cafés.
The tour is mobile and involves stairs, but shows are fully accessible.
Tours last about an hour and a quarter and take place weekdays (except Wednesday) at 2.15pm and 4.45pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10.15am and 12pm and Sundays by arrangement. Adults £9, children £7.
How to get there
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Catherine Street, London WC2 (020-7850 8791).
By underground: Covent Garden, Holborn tubes are in walking distance.
By rail: Charing Cross is the nearest mainline station.
Buses: Numbers 1, 59, 68, 91, 6, 9, 13, 77a, 4, 15, 26, 23, 176, 171, RV1 all call nearby.Reuse content