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Theatre Royal Drury Lane history

The Theatre Royal on Catherine Street has been home to four theatres since 1663, surviving an exciting past including numerous transformations, burnings down and disasters. Thankfully fire safety precautions have improved drastically since the olden days and the Grade I listed building now stands as a monument to the longevity of London theatre, hosting some of the city's most popular and best-loved new musicals and plays.

Early theatre buildings tended to house melodrama, opera and pantomime and were known, as the current theatre is today, for their complicated and extravagant stage sets. This was one of the first theatres in London to employ special stage machinery that either flew or otherwise moved sets around without human stagehands.

In the early 1700s the theatre famously launched the career of Joseph Grimaldi, a Regency era clown who is said to be the resident ghost at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to this day, haunting audience members and performers alike.

After fires destroyed two earlier theatres on the site, the building that still stands today was built in 1811 and reopened a year later with a production of Hamlet. Other notable early performances included a production of Cataract of the Ganges in 1823, which required an elaborate grand finale with a real horseback escape and genuine fire effects on the stage. Which seems very risky since the premises' previous incarnations had both burned down!

The mid to late 1800s saw a surge in popularity of English and Italian Operas including The Maid of Artois, Maritana, performances from the Carl Rosa Opera Company and a successful run of plays including The Shaugraun. Hugely expensive big budget productions continued throughout the 20th century, with the 1909 play The Whip involving a derailed train that hissed real stream and 12 live horses let loose on stage. Similarly large in scale was Noel Coward’s 1931 play Cavalcade, which featured a cast and crew of more than 300, unthinkable these days.

Throughout World War Two the theatre became the home of the Entertainments National Service Association and sustained minor damage from bomb blasts, reopening after a short period in 1946 with a production of Pacific 1860. In the lean years after the war people seemed to want fun and frivolity more than serious theatre, and a large number of new musicals made the Theatre Royal Drury Lane their home. Most prolific were Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, debuting Oklahoma! In 1946, South Pacific in 1951 and The King and I in 1953.

The musical My Fair Lady ran at the theatre for five years from 1958, as did 42nd Street from 1984. However the theatre's first major modern success was the Cameron Mackintosh production of Miss Saigon, which ran for a whopping 10 years from 1989.

More recent productions at the theatre include the 2004 revival of The Producers, the high budget flop musical version of The Lord of the Rings in 2007, Lionel Bart's Oliver! in 2009, Shrek the Musical in 2011 and a brilliant new musical version of Roald Dahl children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which opened in June 2013.