A Grade I listed building in Covent Garden, London, the Theatre Royal, Drury lane is the oldest in London still in use today. Over the years it has gained a reputation as the most haunted theatre in the British capital. Quite a title, given that many of the classic West End theatres have tales of ghosts of their own, including the Lyceum, the Adephi, the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the London Palladium.
Many actors, stage hands and staff have reported witnessing ghosts in the Drury Lane theatre, so frequently in fact that it has become a superstition amongst performers there that the appearance of a spectre is supposed to signal good luck for the coming performance.
Since the regency era, when the future George IV ruled as regent due to the declining mental health of his father, actors have reported encounters with the theatre’s most famous supernatural resident, known as the Man in Grey. Described as wearing the clothing of an 18th Century nobleman, including a riding cloak and tricorn hat, the ghost is usually seen wandering the upper circle. His appearances always followed a set route, which ended with him passing through a solid wall. Many staff and contractors working in the high seats of the theatre have reported electronic devices shutting off or otherwise malfunctioning. In 1939, a large group of performers on stage for a group photo witnessed the figure walk slowly around the upper circle before melting into a wall.
One actor, who appeared in the stage production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, found after asking around that almost everyone currently working at the theatre had some kind of experience they attributed to the Man in Grey. As well as sightings, doors had been slammed or electronic devices had acted erratically. Most accounts agree that the Man in Grey is the ghost of an unfortunate man found bricked up in a in a small side passage within the theatre in 1848. From his remains it appeared he had been stabbed to death. The commonly reported behaviour of the Man in Grey passing through walls is usually along a path that would lead to where the corpse was found.
Performers whose long careers were closely linked to Drury Lane are also said to linger on there. Actor and clown Joseph Grimaldi appeared frequently in pantomines at the theatre. He died in 1837, the cause of death recorded as ‘a visitation by God’; an attempt to explain him passing away during the night at the age of 58. Stories surrounding Grimaldi appear to have contributed significantly to the belief that supernatural appearances are good luck, seemingly a benign spirit that attempts to guide and support nervous actors. A pioneer of the art of mime, his disembodied white face has also been seen floating around the theatre.
The second is Charles Macklin, a popular Irish actor who appeared extensively at Drury Lane during the 18th Century. In 1735, during an argument with a fellow actor Thomas Hallam, he thrust the tip of his cane at the man’s face. The tip punctured the man’s eye, killing him. While tried for murder, he was only convicted of manslaughter. Since his death, believed to have been at over 100 years of age, his ghost has been seen wandering backstage close to the area where he had killed Hallam.
Dan Leno was another regular performer in Drury Lane, appearing as a pantomine dame and clog dancer. In his late thirties Leno’s mental health deteriorated badly. He eventually passed away at the age of 43, before which he displayed increasing symptoms including severe incontinence. He would cover the resultant smell with strong lavender perfume, which is said to be frequently smelled around the theatre to this day. Staff have also heard a load tapping or banging noise from a dressing room though to have once been Leno’s, apparently the sound of him rehearsing his clog dancing routine.