Who is the mysterious man in Row Q that terrifies staff at the Apollo Victoria? What’s the most haunted building in Theatreland? Why do so many actors and crew report supernatural encounters and where do Front of House staff refuse to work alone?
Theatres are emotionally-charged buildings full of tradition and ritual. Even modern auditoria can feel strangely atmospheric when the audience departs, as if some of their energy is left behind. Superstitions abound in Theatre – refer to “The Scottish Play” by name or whistle backstage at your peril – did you know that some theatres still leave a “ghost light” on while they are in darkness to appease their spirit visitors?
I often work at the Shaftesbury Theatre and although I’ve never seen any ghosts there, there is one particular area at the back of the Royal Circle beside a stairwell where Front of House staff prefer not to dwell. It was while I was talking to the Shaftesbury’s Theatre Manager that I unearthed a story about another theatre entirely:
I was working at the Leeds Grand. I’d only been there a week also and was locking up alone when I felt a hand on my shoulder – it made me turn around…to find there was nobody there and all the doors were locked. The next day I told colleagues what had happened. They asked “Were you in box F?” – which I was. After that I always made sure there were two people locking up!
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London
A theatre has stood on this site since 1663. The current building is haunted by a handful of spirits including two nineteenth century greats – Dan Leno and Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi, the father of British clowning, is reported to kick up the bottom any actor not working hard enough on stage. Drury Lane’s spirits also keep a protective watch – one actor felt a push just as a piece of scenery fell where they would have been standing. Another famous Drury Lane resident is the “Man In Grey” – an 18th Century nobleman wearing a tricorne hat. In 1939, half the cast of The Dancing Years assembled on stage for a photo call saw him en-masse as he drifted across the upper circle and disappeared through a solid wall. A glimpse of the Man in Grey is seen as a good omen for a new show.
Fortune Theatre, London
Warning: The following contains a plot spoiler of the play Woman In Black
It seems that death, as well as life, really can imitate art: Occupying a site opposite the Theatre Royal, The Fortune was built on, or nearby, the Elizabethan Cockpit Theatre. Since 1989, the theatre has been home to The Woman In Black. During one performance, one of the actors on stage looked out into the wings and thought he saw the actress who plays the show’s ghost. Nothing unusual – until he realised that the actress was actually on stage with him! Natalie Block played the role of the ghost for many years having previously worked at the theatre as an usher. “I was sitting at the back of the dress circle during a performance when I noticed a grey shadow in Box A…gradually the shadow took the form of a lady. Her hair was worn up in a Victorian style…I looked back again but the apparition was gone”.
Theatre Royal, Brighton: It’s behind you
Brighton’s beautiful two-hundred year old Theatre Royal is said to be home to at least four ghosts: A Lady in Grey (possibly Mrs Nye Chart who managed the theatre in the 1800s) who has been seen by Danny La Rue and Martin Jarvis, as well as the ghosts of a man and two children. A young electrician who was doing the get-out one Saturday night distinctly heard a voice wish him “Good Evening”. He left as white as a sheet – he had been alone in the fly tower at the time.
Merton Abbey Mills
Stagecoach Principal Jayne Hardy had a similarly unnerving experience in Merton Abbey Mills on Sound & Lighting. Whilst working alone tech-ing for a show she was taken aback to hear a voice behind her whisper “Turn the lights on” – despite being alone in the booth which was only accessible by climbing a ladder.
Real life tragedy
Actor Mark Collier has worked at many of our finest theatres and shared two stories from his travels:
“Above the stage in The Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells is a coil of rope. The story goes that one night, during a play, one of the actors had to pretend to hang himself on stage. Tragedy struck when the illusion went wrong and the actor’s neck was broken. When anyone has tried to remove the rope, something terrible has happened and so the noose is now left permanently coiled above the stage. Another tragedy befell a stage-hand in Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre. The theatre would use a cannonball rolling down a chute to create the effect of thunder. The wood casing gradually perished and one day, the cannon ball fell in the wrong place, hitting stage-hand Robert Crowther and caving in his skull. His ghost is still said to brush past people backstage and create havoc for technicians.”
Vaudeville Theatre, London
Karl Dean worked at the Vaudeville Theatre for many years. In his time there, many of his colleagues experienced the feeling of an unseen presence and the smell of old fashioned perfume. He recounts in particular the experience of a pest-controller working in the theatre:
“It was during the 1994 run of Dead Funny at the Vaudeville. At the end of the play there is food all over the stage and early into the run the theatre became infested by mice. The pest-controller, Tony, would come in every night and set hundreds of traps and return each morning. One morning he went to the area where programmes were stored, just behind the Stalls bar. It’s a tiny little space. Suddenly he could sense someone standing right behind him even though he was completely alone. And then he noticed the smell of perfume. He’s ex-military and doesn’t scare easily…until we told him about the ghost.”
The Phoenix Theatre
Two of my colleagues in the Theatre industry have, independently, reported the presence of “something un-nerving” about certain areas of the Phoenix. In particular, energy seems to concentrate around a mirrored corridor at the back of the auditorium.
Backstage staff have also reported seeing or sensing the ghost of Stephanie Lawrence, whose life was tragically cut short. Stephanie had played Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers for many years here. The show draws deeply on emotional grief – could that be why Stephanie and an actor who played Eddie who also died young are still felt within the building?
Continue to Most Haunted Theatres in Britain part two where we reveal which theatre really does deserve the name “most haunted” and why so many staff prefer not to be in the building alone…
Haunted West End Theatres by Shillito & Walsh
BBC Radio 4’s Ghost Stories from Theatreland
The Brighton Argus
With thanks also to:
Jayne Hardy, Jonathan Tucker, Karl Dean, David Scarr, Nichola Lindsay Doe, Fiona Holland, Mark Collier and everyone at the Shaftesbury Theatre