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Tours that reveal their secrets
By Chris McBeath

Photo 2. Auditorium from stage – Royal Opera House, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

If discovering the secrets and superstitions of some of London’s grandest stages is a mouthwatering temptation, then the West End is where it’s at. These are my top choices and if you’ve time, head for the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington.


There’s a ghost or two in London’s oldest, continuously running theatre. Actor Charles Macken still nudges actors to recall forgotten lines, and watch for the man in grey-- Row D, Royal Circle. But should you miss them, there’s still plenty to fuel the imagination.

When Charles II established the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane (1660s), it marked the end to the Puritan era during which ‘sinful’ theatre was banned as a way of retaining church attendance. The theatre quickly became a leader of its day. It was the first to introduce safety curtains against an interior lit by thousands of candles; ironically the first burned down. It allowed women to play female roles -- and the reverse. Dan Leno invented the role of Panto Dame at Drury Lane. Unfortunately, he was incontinent so would douse his costume with oil of lavender, the scent of which still wafts across the stage on occasion, in ghostly fashion.

Photo 1. Nel Gwyn in Drury Lane tunnels – Chris McBeath photo

Among the many unique features are two royal entrances and two royal boxes, thus preventing King George III and his wayward son, the Prince of Wales, from feuding in public. Most intriguing, though, are the underground tunnels. One led to the pub where Nel Gwyn, (Charles II’s mistress), plied her trade, while the other went down to the docks. Sailors would travel it to work for extra money as backstage “crew”, to “fly the flats” and “hoist the rigging” -- nautical terms that are still used in theatre today. And please, never whistle in a theatre. Since sailors communicated to one another by whistling across the ship’s deck, they naturally used it to cue scenery changes. A wayward whistle could well prompt ghosts of former crews to drop a stage weight unexpectedly. Or so goes the superstition.


Photo 2a Royal Opera House Auditorium, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

Lavishly elegant in style, story and history, the Royal Opera House is one the busiest performance spaces in London. Home to the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet that run side-by-side productions year round, this backstage tour reveals an understated appreciation for the two most strenuous disciplines in the performing arts.

Photo 4a. Lighting Box Operator/Wide Angle Auditorium

To accommodate this symbiotic relationship, the stage is changed no less than four times in any 24-hour period. Manouevered with the precision of Rolls Royce engineering, complete sets and floors are exchanged within minutes enabling each discipline to rehearse and/or perform a repertoire of two ballets and two operas every day.

Photo 3. Dye Shop – Royal Opera House, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

Colour coded corridors help navigate the maze of working areas spread over three haphazard acres in and around Covent Garden – blue for stage, red for production (everything from costume dying to set building), yellow for music, and so on. Head for the fourth floor, and you’ll be watching dancers practising their arabesques – a special privilege. With luck, Philip Mosley (aka the real Billy Elliot) may cross your path as he confers with younger dancers.

Photo 4. Tutu poles – Royal Opera House, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

Every turn in this tour reveals another curiosity such as the mirrors in Queen Victoria’s Royal Box positioned to reflect the performance to the Ladies in Waiting who sat facing the Queen, not the stage. Ticket tip? Because the auditorium is uncarpeted the sound in the sky-high seats is better than in the stalls.


Photo 5. At the conductor’s podium – Chris McBeath photo

Built in 1904 to be the biggest, brashest, most talked about playhouse in London, the Coliseum doesn’t disappoint. Originally larger than Drury Lane (which originally held 4,000 patrons on six levels), this Romanesque styled building was set to impress from its exterior façade (look for loin clothed young men carved into the cornices), and its revolving dome, to an interior of mosaic tile floors and ceilings. At one time, there was even an aquarium in the middle and running the height of the stairwell!

Photo 6 Wigmaker Eddie Ferguson, “Eddie the Wig” – Chris McBeath photo

As for the variety shows themselves, it seems that imagination was the only limit. Nowhere else could you see a Derby with live horses racing against a rotating stage, or a real cricket match between Middlesex and Surrey ‘to bring a bit of summer to the winter’.

Photo 6a ENO Porgy & Bess

The tour includes all manner of colourful anecdotes about the building’s many incarnations, including with its current occupant, the English National Opera. Unlike the Royal Opera House nearby, the Coliseum’s space is so excruciatingly tight that sets are broken down, sometimes nightly, and stored in trucks parked behind the theatre. Hottest tip? If a show is sold out, try for one of the side boxes. Their proximity to the stage and orchestra is unparalleled and more than make up for the partly restricted views.


Photo 8. Exterior Royal Albert Hall at Dusk – David Iliff photo

Londoners owe Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, a debt of gratitude. When he established a collection of museums and cultural destinations in South Kensington, including the Royal Albert Hall, he elevated the entire cultural scene of England.

Photo 7. Interior from the Rafters – Chris McBeath photo

Admired as much for its architecture as for its wildly diverse programming, events here include everything from Adele concerts, to championship tennis, to Dr. Who daleks floating down from the ceiling. The world famous Proms have played here every summer since 1895.

Photo 9. Empty Auditorium

Backstage tours are a shade unpredictable depending on what’s on. Every event has a 24 turn-around so with move in starting at 4am, and set-ups and rehearsals continuing through the day, tours don’t generally hit the floor. Still, the hall’s 1,000-pipe organ is an impressive sight, as are Cirque de Soleil set ups, and garnering a birds-eye view from the balcony is a heady perspective.

Inspired to see a show? Then check out another time-honoured tradition peculiar only to the Albert Hall. Lining up for tickets, especially for a Proms concert, turns queueing into a social art. Bring a chair, a sandwich to share and a good book, and be prepared to make new friends. And just in case you’re counting, there are 13,500 ‘A’s carved into the staircase railings that will guide you up and around this magnificent hall.


PHOTOS as attributed below

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

1. Nel Gwyn in Drury Lane tunnels – Chris McBeath photo Royal Opera, Covent Garden

2. Auditorium from stage – Royal Opera House, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

2a Royal Opera House Auditorium, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

3. Dye Shop – Royal Opera House, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

4. Tutu poles – Royal Opera House, Sim Cannetty-Clark photo

4a. Lighting Box Operator/Wide Angle Auditorium The Coliseum, St. Martins Lane

5. At the conductor’s podium – Chris McBeath photo

6. Wigmaker Eddie Ferguson, “Eddie the Wig” – Chris McBeath photo

6a ENO Porgy & Bess Royal Albert Hall

7. Interior from the Rafters – Chris McBeath photo

8. Exterior Royal Albert Hall at Dusk – David Iliff photo

9. Empty Auditorium


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