Theatrical haunts: The ghosts of the West End
Douglas McPherson celebrates Halloween with a round-up of where and when ghosts have been witnessed by actors and audiences in London’s theatres
During the 1880s, a couple were watching a play at the Lyceum when they happened to glance over the balcony and saw a severed head grinning up at them from the lap of a woman in the stalls.
After the show, they were unable to find the woman in the crush. Some years later, however, the couple were visiting a house in Yorkshire when they spotted a portrait of a man with the face of the severed head.
The house owner explained the man in the painting was a distant ancestor who had once owned the land the Lyceum stands on. He’d been beheaded for treason.
That’s one of the many ghost stories associated with London’s theatres – many continue to host supernatural performances. If you arrive in Theatreland via Covent Garden tube station, look out for the ghost of actor William Terriss, who was murdered by a jealous bit-part player outside the Adelphi Theatre in 1897.
The station stands on the site of Terriss’ favourite baker’s shop, although he is also said to haunt the Adelphi itself, pausing to knock on the door of the dressing room once occupied by the actress Jessica Millward, in whose arms he died bleeding.
Early 19th-century panto clown Joseph Grimaldi was such a celebrity he sometimes performed in three theatres on the same evening, so it’s not surprising his ghost gets about.
Grimaldi’s last request was to be decapitated before burial and his disembodied head, complete with eerie white clown make-up, has been seen watching the show from behind unaware theatregoers at Sadler’s Wells, where he made his debut.
The mischievous Grimaldi is also said to have made his presence felt at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where countless actors, usherettes and cleaners have received a ghostly boot up the bum from an unseen assailant.
The Theatre Royal boasts quite a company of ghosts, including that of Victorian panto star Dan Leno, who can sometimes still be heard rehearsing his clog-dancing routine in his former dressing room. Many an actor has also reported the whiff of lilac on stage, which was the perfume Leno used to hide his incontinence.
Drury Lane’s most seen ghost is a man in grey who crosses the upper circle in clothes from the era of Queen Anne and disappears through a wall. In 1939, he was witnessed by half of the cast of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, who were on stage for a photo call.
During renovations in the 1870s, builders found a bricked-up room behind the wall through which the man in grey disappears. In it was a skeleton with a dagger through its ribcage. He was believed to be an actress’ lover, murdered by a jealous actor.
For a decade after the end of the First World War, the London Coliseum played host to the ghost of a soldier who spent his last night of leave at a performance before being killed in action.
Aldwych tube station is today only used as a film set, but its theatrical associations go back further to the Royal Strand Theatre, which formerly stood on the site. So it’s no surprise that its tracks are wandered by a ghostly unknown actress who terrorises the cleaners at night.
The Royal Albert Hall is said to be haunted by Henry Willis, designer of the venue’s 150-ton, 9,000-pipe organ.
Two Victorian prostitutes, meanwhile, are said to roam the upper gallery each November, perhaps remembering the brothel that previously occupied the site.
The Old Crimson Staircase at the Palladium’s Royal Circle is believed to be a remnant of Argyll House, and the lady who is often seen ascending the stairs in a crinoline dress is thought to Mrs Shireburn, mistress of the 18th-century Duke of Argyll.
Another haunted staircase can be found at the Garrick, where former manager Arthur Bourchier frequently materialises. Bourchier is famous for refusing to admit the Times theatre critic in 1903 – and builders renovating the theatre in the nineties reported him overseeing their work with a trademark stern stare.
One of Theatreland’s most gruesome ghosts haunts the Old Vic, where a spectral woman is sometimes seen clutching bloodstained hands to her breast – although it has been suggested that the “blood” is make-up and that she’s the ghost of an actress who refuses to take her final bow.
Many theatre managers have proved reluctant to vacate the buildings to which they devoted so much of their earthly energy. Among them is actor-manager John Baldwin Buckstone, whose lingering presence at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, has been witnessed by many a celebrity, including Donald Sinden. Charles Wyndham, who built the Albery Theatre, continues to walk its stage.
Moving out to the suburbs, JB Mulholland, the original manager of Wimbledon Theatre, is often seen in one of the boxes, contentedly watching rehearsals or one of the shows.
He’s a much more welcome visitor than Wimbledon’s other supernatural resident, a mysterious grey lady whose favourite trick is turning on the sprinkler system.
Not all poltergeist activity is limited to harmless pranks. In the forties, the Duke of York’s became infamous for a Victorian jacket worn during a production of The Queen Came By that mysteriously constricted and try to strangle every actress who wore it. A seance revealed the jacket had been owned by a woman who was murdered by drowning. The prop was sold to an American collector, whose wife tried it on and immediately found it tried to strangle her, too.
Ghostly performances are not confined to the London stage – many regional theatres also boast a resident apparition. One reason may be that theatres tend to have long histories. Although a cynic might suggest that they tend to be the workplaces of people with a highly developed imagination… who are often quite partial to spirits of the liquid variety.
* To find out more about theatrical history, visit www.stage.co.uk/archive
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