Something wicked this way comes…
Written for Anna Fiorentini Theatre & Film School
Recently, we talked about theatre superstitions on this blog, and this week we’re continuing the supernatural theme with a look at London’s theatre ghosts. It seems that most of our capital’s theatres have one or more spooky inhabitants, so we’ve stuck to some of the most well-known ones here.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane can claim the top spot on this list: it’s said to be the most haunted theatre, not just in London, but in the entire world. Among it’s ghostly residents are pantomime star Dan Leno, still recognisable by the lavender scent he used to wear in life, and the clown Joseph Grimaldi, who usually makes himself known by kicking people in the backside. The most spotted spook at Drury Lane is the Man in the Grey, who glides across the Upper Circle before disappearing into the wall. When the theatre was renovated in 1870, a skeleton with a dagger through the ribcage was discovered behind this same wall. The identity of the Man in Grey remains unknown, but it’s said that he only appears during shows that are going to be a hit, which probably makes him the only ghost that people will be very eager to see.
Another ghost with a claim to fame is John Buckstone, who haunts the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Buckstone was a Victorian actor, playwright and theatre manager, who worked on many plays at the Haymarket, and also managed the theatre for years. He apparently got so used to being there that he kept coming after his death in 1879, and he has frequently been spotted by celebrities appearing in shows at the theatre, making him one of the West End’s most high-profile ghosts. Patrick Stewart reported seeing Buckstone in the wings during a performance of Waiting for Godot, while Judi Dench encountered the ghost on the backstage stairs. A comedian in life, Buckstone is said to usually appear when a comedy is playing at the Haymarket, because he prefers watching those.
Buckstone is not the only manager who has found it hard to leave his job behind. Her Majesty’s Theatre is still regularly visited by its old owner, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who lived in the theatre until his death in 1917. Fortunately for the current proprietors, he’s not very interfering: he only haunts the stage right top box, where he’s been known to occasionally open a door or cause a sudden drop in temperature. Another workaholic West End spook is architect Charles Wyndham, who is said to appear at Noel Coward, one of the theatres he built in his lifetime.
Unsurprisingly, London has its fair share of actor-ghosts as well. The Old Vic is home to a particularly scary-looking vision, a woman with blood-stained hands that she clutches at her chest. The commonly-held belief seems to be that the blood is actually stage makeup, and that she’s continuing to act out her final scene. A real life grisly tale is that of the successful actor William Terriss, who was murdered by a colleague at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre. His dying words, ‘I’ll be back’, proved to be prophetic indeed: Terriss’s ghost reportedly still hangs around the Adelphi’s backstage area, where he can be found knocking on the door of the dressing room that once beloved to his ex-lover. He is also known to take the occasional trip around the corner, to Covent Garden tube station, which stands in the place where Terriss’s favourite bakery used to be.
There are some very unusual ghosts roaming the London theatres as well. The Duke of York’s was apparently once home to a possessed Victorian costume jacket that tried to strangle any unfortunate actor who put it on, while the Victoria Palace has a haunted costume cupboard that locks itself at crucial moments. Meanwhile, the Peacock Theatre can boast of having the capital’s only animal ghost, a dolphin commonly known as Flipper. Poor Flipper once lived in an aquarium underneath the stage that could be lifted up during the show, but died there due to neglect. According to the theatre’s website, a ‘spectral squeaking’ can still be heard near the remains of Flipper’s tank.
So keep an eye out next time you’re at one of these theatres, and you might see more than just the show.