Theatres attract tales of ghosts and hauntings like few other types of building. The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane is no exception.
The current Theatre Royal in Covent Garden dates to 1812. It’s actually the fourth incarnation on the site since 1663. You can even find original 18th-century foundations below ground level.
The would-be assassin James Hadfield tried to murder King George III in 1800 in the previous theatre, which burned down in 1809.
But the stories of resident ghosts have passed into local theatre legend. The tale of the Man in Grey is perhaps the most oft-repeated story. So let’s take a walk into London’s cultural scene and find out who he is…
The Man in Grey
Perhaps the most famous of the ghosts at the Theatre Royal is the so-called Man in Grey.
According to the legend, actors only see him between 10 am and 6 pm. He wears a tricorn hat and a long grey cloak. He sits in the Upper Circle, before striding along the walkway behind the seats where he disappears into a wall.
However, he’s not a phantom that inspires fear and dread. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Whenever the Man in Grey appears at a matinee performance or rehearsal, the play goes on to be a success. Does this make him a good omen for the Theatre Royal?
According to the legends, he endorsed The King and I, South Pacific and Oklahoma, among others. He even appeared at Miss Saigon every time the cast changed. All of the productions were box office hits.
But refurbishment of the theatre in the 1840s revealed a wall cavity in the Upper Circle. It contained a skeleton with a knife in its chest. Could this be our mysterious Man in Grey?
The folk tales around him claim that he was a wealthy gentleman in the 18th century. Embroiled in a passionate affair with an actress, he met her in the – you guessed it – Upper Circle after performances.
One night, a rival lay in wait for him. Instead of greeting his sweetheart, the Man in Grey encountered his murderer. He stabbed the gentleman in the chest and hid his body in an alcove at the back of the Upper Circle. The murderer later walled up the alcove.
But is it true?
The entire cast of The Dancing Years saw him in 1939. The theatre’s resident historian, Macqueen Pope, puffed up tales of the mass sighting.
Some doubt over the veracity of the Man in Grey – mass sighting puffed up by Macqueen Pope, the theatre historian – also the Theatre Royal’s advertising manager.
I found it difficult to find any records of eyewitness accounts – most of the online sources just say that people have seen this or that ghost. But I did find an article in the Sunday Mirror from 5 February 1939 that mentions spooky activity in the Theatre Royal. Actress Doreen Austin explained that;
I have never seen the ghost but once during rehearsals when the principal girl, Greta Fayne, and I had stayed later than the others to go through a tap-dance routine, the girl who was coaching us suddenly stopped and said: “Who is that sitting in the stalls?” We all looked, but there was nobody there at all.”
The Man in Grey prefers sitting in the Upper Circle, but maybe he wanted a better view.
Other ghosts at the Theatre Royal
The Man in Grey isn’t the only resident spectre. Performer Joseph Grimaldi apparently haunts several parts of the theatre. Actors, ushers, and cleaners report mischevious kicks while they go about their business.
A disembodied white face has been seen around the theatre. It’s particularly seen in the boxes. Grimaldi asked for his head to be decapitated before burial, which might explain the bizarre apparition.
Many actors believe Grimaldi nudges performers around the stage to improve their position. Though he’s not averse to giving them a kick if they’re not putting in enough effort. He even pats them on the back when they get laughs.
Other reports involve tugged trouser legs, people hearing their name called, swing doors moving of their own accord, or hearing sharp intakes of breath in empty rooms.
Dan Leno, another clown, often portrayed pantomime dames at the theatre. He died aged 43 in 1904. But he suffered from incontinence and hid the smell with lavender perfume. The scent still hangs around the theatre.
Leno was also famous for a clog dancing routine. People have reported the sound of rhythmic drumming inside his former dressing room. Is he still rehearsing even now?
But why do theatres attract so many ghosts?
Given the number of people who die in hospital, you might expect hospitals to be more haunted than theatres.
But theatres around the country boast far more tales of phantoms and spectres. Many of the ghosts remain, even when the theatres disappear. The Royal Strand Theatre originally stood on the site now occupied by the disused Aldwych tube station in London. A ghostly actress still wanders the tracks, bothering the maintenance men.
Could it be the vast range of emotions played out on the stage? Are actors simply more susceptible to presences from the other side? Or do lonely ghosts return to the spaces where they were at their happiest?
Let me know what you think! Is your local theatre haunted?
And if you enjoyed this post, sign up below to get more folklore in your inbox every week.
Want more folklore in your inbox?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my folklore podcast recommendations for your listening pleasure!