A Guided Tour of The Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

by KathleenDuffy

A tour of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, just a short walk from London’s Piccadilly Circus, is like stepping into a gorgeous jewelled box.

Starting life as a modest building in the rough part of town. the original Hay Market Theatre opened in 1720. It was replaced in July, 1821 by the present Haymarket Theatre designed by the architect John Nash. It’s a Grade 1 listed building with a Royal Charter, and the exterior, with its six Corinthian columns, is just the beginning of what will be a ninety minute journey of dramatic delights. You’ll hear about actors past and present, tread the historical boards of the original sloping stage, peek into an actor’s dressing room, listen to tales of ‘corpsing’ (when actor’s forget their lines) - and hear about the ghosts who haunt the theatre!

The Theatre Royal Haymarket Tour Begins!

Right from the start, this tour is impressive.  The exterior of the building is stunning and it’s easy to imagine those Regency days when gas lamps flickered,  hansom cabs drove up to the entrance and elegant theatregoers mingled in the lobby.

Perhaps the author, Oscar Wilde, would have been there mesmerising his admirers with his barbed wit, or duelling verbally with the equally charismatic manager of the theatre, Herbert Beerbohm-Tree.  

Waiting in the Lobby
Waiting in the Lobby
c. K Duffy

So we  assemble in this very same lobby, listening to a brief introductory history of the theatre by our friendly and enthusiastic tour guide, Nina. Nina's partner, Walter, is on hand to fill in any gaps in the Theatre Royal's long history and later on has his moment when he describes, to chilling effect, his experiences of a visitation by a ghostly presence. But more of that later!

In fact, you'll soon find out from Nina that there are a number of very reliable ghosts in this building, who are seen on a regular basis by staff and stars alike. One of the most recent sightings was by Patrick Stewart during his performance in Waiting for Godot.

Oscar’s Blue Plaque At The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

We make our way down the stairs, slipping through the softly lit  auditorium and out into the frosty air. 

At the back of the Theatre Royal Haymarket

The simple, genteel elegance of this street is in strange contrast to the lush, sumptuous interior of the theatre. It’s a bit disorientating being suddenly exposed to this other bright world, but we are there, by the stage door, to see a blue plaque dedicated to Oscar Wilde.

Oscar’s plays, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband made their debut at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, and the great actor, John Gielgud, unveiled this blue plaque in 1995.

The street outside the stage door is a cul-de-sac and it's easy to imagine back to the days when the stage door Johnnies and the fans of various great actors clamoured around the stage door, waiting for their heroes and heroines to emerge into the night.

Blue plaque for Oscar Wilde outside Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Blue plaque for Oscar Wilde outside Theatre Royal, Haymarket
K Duffy

We Tread the Boards of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket!

Next, we go through the stage door where the stage doorman is in his little office drinking a cup of tea.  Suddenly we are on the stage.  Everything backstage is the original John Nash setup, including the spiral staircase, and the theatrical rigging which works as reliably today as it did when it was first installed. 

Nina apologises for the recent introduction of strict Health & Safety procedures that won’t allow us to touch anything or ascend the staircase. We aren’t allowed to take photographs back here either - it’s all to do with copyright - but there will be plenty of other opportunities. 

The curtain is down, so we can’t see out into the auditorium today. But we are thrilled to be standing on the original, rare sloping stage in the same spot where so many theatrical greats once stood and still do.  Today we are surrounded by the scenery from the latest production, One Man, Two Guvnors.

The Theatre Royal, Haymarket - Dressing Room Number 1

Dressing Room No. 1, Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
Dressing Room No. 1, Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
c. K Duffy

We're surprised to be taken into the dressing room nearest the stage to have a privileged  look at this sanctuary where imaginary characters come to life and amazing transformations take place. 

When they begin a play's run and move into their allotted dressing rooms, the actors are asked if there is anything they need to make it more comfortable.

Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, when in Waiting for Godot,  apparently brought in a stove and changed the wallpaper.  Unfortunately, they also sawed the legs off an old table... There is always a chaise longue in each dressing room so that thespians can collapse in a heap when they come off stage.


Dressing table, Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
Dressing table, Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
c. K Duffy

John Gielgud used to prefer dressing room Number 10. He stayed there during the war when he, along with Rex Harrison, was a fire warden. Vanessa Redgrave didn’t like number 10 as it was a long way up and down the stairs, especially in period costume.

Oh, and all dressing rooms are haunted!

Theatre Royal, Haymarket - The Royal Receiving Room

The Royal Receiving Room, Theatre Royal, Haymarket
The Royal Receiving Room, Theatre Royal, Haymarket
c. K Duffy

This is the room where the Royals wait before they make their entrance into the Royal Box. It was created by Queen Victoria and the walls used to be adorned with her watercolours.  (They are now in Windsor Castle.)

Today, this is the official VIP room for diplomats, visiting dignitaries and the like.  When the Clintons came to the Theatre Royal with their daughter Chelsea they avoided the crowds by coming in through the back door and straight into the Royal Box. However, Bill fancied an ice-cream in the interval and caused quite a sensation when he queued up in the stalls!  (This is the delicious kind of morsal our guide Nina keeps feeding us!)

Theatre Royal , Haymarket, London - The Beautiful Auditorium

The Auditorium of Theatre Royal, Haymarket
The Auditorium of Theatre Royal, Haymarket
c. K Duffy


We come out of the Royal Receiving Room, past the Royal Box and suddenly we are in this beautiful, jewel-like space filled with soft golden light from the lamps and the old chandelier.

Nina spends a lot of time telling us all about the history of the interior decor.  There is a beautiful Nash-designed gold proscenium arch framing the stage and the walls are decorated with contemporary murals by Joseph Parker.

A refurbishment in 1904-5  saw William Morris's blue wallpaper introduced in some areas. In 1994 areas of  this damaged wallpaper were replaced from old bolts  of  the original  paper which were still around.

We are told tales of the great actors who have graced this stage, the brave and sometimes foolhardy managers and playwrights, and the history of theatrical censorship.



Theatre Royal, Haymarket - The Bancroft Stalls Bar

Where we hear Oscar's Voice!


Down in the beautiful Bancroft Stalls Bar Nina and Walter have set out material from the theatre's archives for us to look through.  There's lots of old theatrical programmes, photographs and flyers.

From the Theatre Royal ArchivesBut  then we gather round to listen to three very old recordings.  The first is of Oscar Wilde himself reading his poem, The Ballad of Reading Goal. Although it is virtually impossible to hear the words as this is an old Edison recording, nevertheless Oscar's voice is soft and deep.  His voice does not disappoint. It's quite moving.   By comparison a recording of  John Barrymore reading something from Shakespeare and  one of Beerbholm Tree in 1896 as Svengali, sound just a tad over the top.


Theatre Royal, Haymarket - Up in The Gods - And Ghostly Goings-On...

Theatre Royal, Haymarket - Royal Circle

Remember I mentioned one of our guides, Walter, who had seen a ghost?  As we go further up into the upper circles of the theatre, Walter tells us his tale.

Walter was standing at the back of the circle during a matinee. He was peering at the stage through a glass partition, a specially built sound-proof viewing panel  for latecomers who could watch the show without disturbing the audience. Suddenly he saw a reflection in the glass. When he turned around he saw a procession of actors in period costumes coming through the opposite wall. They looked like the negatives of an old black and white photograph. They glided silently by and disappeared through another wall at the end of the corridor.

He is not alone.  Many people working in the theatre, either at the front or back,  have seen the ghost of the once-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He usually 'appears' during the afternoon matinee.  The actress, Sarah Siddons is also fond of a good fright.  She is famous for her role in that 'Scottish Play' !

Vintage London Theatre Programmes

Why not start a collection?

Whilst we are sitting in the Upper Circle, Nina tells us about the Hollywood actors who have visited the theatre and performed there. The list is a long one and includes Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Christopher Reeve, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Richard Chamberlain, and Jack Lemmon.

These stories are fascinating, as are the ones about actors 'corpsing' (i.e. forgetting their lines) in the middle of a performance and some of the tricks they use to get round their tendency to suffer memory lapses. Much of it involves bits of paper and sticky tape.

View from upper window Theatre Royal
View from upper window Theatre Royal
c. K Duffy

Back to Reality - The Tour of Theatre Royal, Haymarket Ends

View from the top floor of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
View from the top floor of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
c. K Duffy

We end our tour in a downstairs room dedicated to Oscar Wilde.  There are some masterful photographs of Oscar adorning its walls, one which according to Nina is quite rare. Oscar's Room  is often used for Acting Masterclasses given by actors such as Toby Jones, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Hytner, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Deborah Warner, Patricia Hodge, Alan Ayckbourn and Derek Jacobi. 

This is a great tour, led by two very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides. It truly is a privilege to be given the opportunity to go behind the scenes of a theatre that is stuffed to the rafters with history. 

It was with reluctance that I left the warm, velvety opulance of The Theatre Royal Haymarket and made my way to the tube station.  But the feeling of being in another era persists - and I may have to revise my scepticism about ghosts!  Well, I mean, if  Dame Judi Dench saw one, there must be something in it!

Follow this link for details of how to book your place on this tour.


Copyright:  Kathleen Duffy


Vintage Theatre Memorabilia

Updated: 04/15/2013, KathleenDuffy
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