Inside the world’s most haunted theatre
Shadowy presences in the wings, glimpses of long-dead performers … ghosts have long plagued the theatre. We descend into the bowels of the West End’s spookiest playhouse – home to the fearsome Man in Grey – to find out. Join us if you dare
Last year, actor Clive Carter had a strange nocturnal experience. He was in his dressing room at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, preparing to go on as Mr Salt in the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While he was putting the finishing touches to his costume and makeup, another actor popped in to say hello. The TV was playing quietly in the corner of the room.
Halfway through their conversation, Carter suddenly noticed the channel on the TV change. He and his colleague glanced at each other in bewilderment: neither of them was near enough to touch it. It changed again. “We started freaking out,” he says, looking genuinely perturbed.
I’ve come backstage with Carter to see where it happened. At lunchtime on a busy, bright day, sun streaming in through the window, it’s hard to picture this as the scene of a paranormal event. But Carter is adamant. “It happened when we started talking about the Drury Lane ghosts. We got the right channel back, but as soon as we started talking about the ghosts, it happened again.”
No chance it was an electrical fault, I ask, or a problem with the signal? Carter looks at me like I’m a goggling idiot. “There wasn’t even a remote.”
Having spent the morning reading up on bloodcurdling tales of theatrical ghosts and ghouls, it is hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment at stories about a possessed television. I’ve come to London’s Drury Lane because it has a reputation as the world’s most haunted theatre: among its otherworldly denizens are purported to be the spirits of the Regency-era comedian Joseph Grimaldi and a fearsome figure known as the Man in Grey, who patrols the upper circle in a riding cloak and tricorne hat before dematerialising into the wall. Disobedient electrical goods seem a little … undramatic.
But Carter, cheerfully unperturbed by my doubts, starts to tell me about the time his Bluetooth headset went awol. “I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I’m just saying what I saw.”
From the witches in Macbeth to the revenant ex-wife in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, supernatural doings are par for the course on stage – the scarier the better, judging by the success of recent West End franchises such as Ghost Stories and The Woman in Black. Yet the stuff that happens when the curtain falls and the house lights go up is equally intriguing, and certainly harder to fathom. There is barely a theatre in Britain that doesn’t claim a resident spook; history is littered with stories of phantoms glimpsed in the orchestra stalls or on-stage presences felt but unseen. Whether it’s the ex-stagehand who wanders the Edinburgh Playhouse as dusk falls or the mysterious butterfly who occupies Bath’s Theatre Royal (a convoluted saga involving a 1940s pantomime and a producer who collapsed on stage), off-stage ghosts are up there with mouse infestations and overpriced interval drinks as a reassuring constant of dramatic history.
But what lies behind them? Can the paranormal stories doing the rounds in the green room be blamed on highly strung thesps? Is theatrical tradition at the root of it? Or, one is driven to ask, is something altogether spookier going on?
Nigel Planer, who starred alongside Carter in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a few years back, counts himself a sceptical believer. Interested by the multiplying tales about Drury Lane’s star cast of ghouls, he took a tour with professional ghost hunter Roger Clarke. He was surprised – and, one senses, mildly alarmed – by what he found. “Everyone in the theatre had some kind of experience. They think they saw the Man in Grey, or they heard a door slam when there was no one in the building. Roger took those stories more seriously than the ghosts: he did think the building had something going on, although it was difficult to say what.”
Eager to do some sleuthing myself, I persuade Carter to take me on a ghost hunt. We head up and across the vast playing field of the stage, overhung by a forest of lights and stacked with neat piles of props, a rack of blue Oompa-Loompa costumes fluorescing weirdly in the glare. We duck into a pocket-sized space just off the wings; it was formerly occupied by the Victorian music hall star and panto dame Dan Leno, whose spirit is said to exude the scent of lavender oil. Carter and I sniff expectantly. Despite my best efforts, all I smell is foam insulation with a whiff of machine grease. We squint towards the upper circle. No sign of the Man in Grey today. Perhaps his understudy is on.
But it’s in the bowels of the theatre that I get a more realistic sense of why old theatres might inspire so many eerie tales. As we descend through an Escher-like myriad of staircases and along dank, dingy passageways, I am surprised to realise how much I wouldn’t want to find myself alone here at night. The “modern” Theatre Royal, built in 1812, is in fact the fourth building to have been raised on this site, which first hosted a theatre in 1663 (two of its predecessors succumbed to fire, a voracious consumer of theatres in the era of candles and gaslights). Below ground level, we’re near the 18th-century foundations: displayed in one corridor are charred beams and what looks, alarmingly, like a human femur, found during restoration. Outside in Covent Garden, the streets are crowded with tourists and lunching office workers; down here, accompanied by the knocking of what I hope is the heating pipes, there’s a definite chill in the air.
Planer recognises the sensation. “When you’re in here at night after a show, when everyone’s left and the only thing on is a little blue light above the stage – I challenge anyone not to be spooked.”
Keen for an explanation that doesn’t involve lavender oil, I call up Aoife Monks, who teaches theatre studies at Queen Mary University of London. She became interested in the topic in 2009, after Patrick Stewart reported glimpsing the spirit of the 19th-century actor John Baldwin Buckstone while performing in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London. Doing so, Stewart became one in a long line of actors, including Judi Dench and Donald Sinden, to have seen the Haymarket’s long-dead manager in the – albeit spectral – flesh. (A Sky Arts documentary failed to capture Buckstone on camera, alas.)
Monks is interested less by the question of whether these ghosts exist and more by the stories that surround them. Actors who claim to have seen an illustrious forebear, she argues, connect themselves with a theatrical heritage that is otherwise intangible. “If you see a ghost, it’s almost like you’re joining the family. It’s hard not to think of all those other actors who have stood where you’re standing, said exactly the same lines. It’s a way of linking to the past.”
Does she think actors are more susceptible to paranormal beliefs than ordinary mortals, or are they just telling porkies? She laughs. “Theatre is a ghostly experience, if you think about it. It’s concerned with the unearthing of texts that, in the case of the Greek tragedies, might be 2,000 years old. And an experience that comes back night after night, but which also disappears in front of your eyes as it does so? Sounds pretty ghostly to me.”
There is perhaps another factor at work, one that might similarly explain why superstition runs riot backstage. Acting is a perilous profession in almost every sense: a forgotten line or missed cue can ruin a show (even, in some cases, a career), just as something as banal as a misbehaving prop (the notorious onstage telephone that fails to ring, or never shuts up) can shatter the spell. It’s striking that so much actors’ slang (“dying” on stage, “corpsing” for inappropriate laughter) dwells on death, although perhaps not surprising when one considers the precariousness of many performers’ professional lives. When 800 pairs of eyes are watching you keenly for foul-ups, or if a tyrannical producer can shutter the show at a moment’s notice, even the most die-hard rationalist might find their faith wavering.
Along with footballers – another notoriously superstitious bunch – many actors are obsessed by pre-performance rituals; perhaps these, too, ward off malevolent spirits. When Carter and I are back in the dressing room, I ask if he has any rituals of his own. Almost too many to count, it turns out, a rattle bag accumulated during the best part of four decades on stage. They include greeting the room each time he enters (“out loud, oh yes”) and putting on his costume in exactly the same way each night, right down to the order in which he installs the batteries in his microphones. He smiles weakly. “I am superstitious, I suppose. The profession does that to you.”
How about – I’m on the point of saying Macbeth, but remember that uttering the name of the Scottish play in a theatre when the tragedy isn’t being performed is the worst theatrical curse of all. Stories about its ill luck extend from the legend – probably spurious – of the boy actor who died mid-performance to the very real injury suffered by Kenneth Branagh’s co-star while performing it in Manchester in 2013.
“Definitely, you have to respect that,” says Carter. “But there are good reasons, of course: it’s a very dark play, literally low light, Macbeth is on stage almost all the time. It’s exhausting. By the time you’re doing the final swordfight…”
I don’t want to interrupt, I say, but did he just say the M-word? Panic flashes across his face.
A second later, he’s gone. As far as I can tell, it isn’t acting. From beyond the door I hear the sound of a grown man swearing and rotating fast on the spot.
When he returns, he’s a little flushed. “Can’t be too careful,” he says.