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Stunning behind-the-scenes look at the theatres of London's West End

Behind the scenes: From lavish dressing rooms to cluttered orchestral pits… fascinating photos give glimpse of West End theatres still shut due to Covid

It has been a torrid year for theatres in London’s West End and further afield, having been mostly shut since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And these photographs will remind audiences what they have been missing, providing a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what goes on backstage – from elegant dressing rooms to the congested orchestra pit.

They feature in a new version of the book ‘London Theatres’ by Michael Coveney and Peter Dazeley which goes inside the likes of the Playhouse, London Palladium, Lyceum, Drury Lane, Garrick, Aldwych and Palace Theatre.

It looks at the history of the Palace, which features a pump used to keep the water level of the buried River Fleet below the building, and Drury Lane which still has the 1947 painted backdrops to Oklahoma! stored backstage. 

Other interesting features include the ‘thunder run’ which created sound effects using cannon balls at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and a backstage ‘donkey run’ at the Palladium for live animals which leads onto the street.

The book also points out that theatres have suffered from epidemic-related closures in the past, including twice during William Shakespeare’s lifetime – in 1592 for two years and in 1603 – because of plague outbreaks. 

Some West End theatres opened at the end of the second lockdown in early December, only to be forced to close days later due London moving into Tier 3 – with A Christmas Carol ending 24 hours after its press night.

Pantomimes across the country were also cancelled last month, with many venues now facing financial disaster even though some switched to online performances in a desperate attempt to make some income. 

In a forward for the book, British star of stage and screen Mark Rylance, 60, writes: ‘The old theatres remind me that unless used carefully, technology can divide the room and remove the actor to another place. 

‘Impressive and powerful as that may be, the greatest moments for me, as actor or audience, have been when actor and audience have become one. That is what I go to experience in all these wonderful theatres.’ 

And author Mr Dazeley added: ‘The weird thing about theatres is that we buy our ticket, sit down, look forward in the dark to be entertained. We never see the beauty of our wonderful theatres and their heritage. They have something in the atmosphere of all the performances over the years, that’s in the fabric of the buildings.’ 

Palace Theatre: The theatre at Cambridge Circus which is staging Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was opened as the Royal English Opera House in 1891. Nearly a century later in 1983 it was bought by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s group for £1.3million. The stage has wooden machinery underneath, and a pump used to keep the water level of the buried River Fleet below the theatre

Her Majesty’s Theatre: The prompter’s desk is pictured at what was The Phantom of the Opera’s home for 30 years, in the fourth theatre on the site which was once a cattle market. At one stage it was the second largest opera house in Europe, after La Scala in Milan. Architectural features include its French Renaissance style, four Corinthian pillars and plaster busts

London Coliseum: The view from the stage at the Roman-inspired building, which was built in 1904 and is the largest West End theatre with 2,359 seats. It features a stunning mosaic dome in the foyer and has functioned exclusively as an opera house since 1968. The theatre was the first in Britain to be fitted with a revolving stage, which has a triple revolve

Theatre Royal Drury Lane: The star’s dressing room at the fourth theatre on the same site dating back to 1663, which is billed by the book as the ‘greatest story ever told in the West End’. A 15-year-old Nell Gwyn, who was a celebrity in the Restoration period, made her debut there in the 17th century and gas lighting was introduced in 1817 at the site on Catherine Street

Prince of Wales Theatre: The orchestra pit at the Art Deco theatre which was built in 1937. The building is meant to give the feel of walking on board an ocean liner, and Barbra Streisand make her only London appearance in a stage role there, in Funny Girl for a few months in the 1960s. It hosted the Beatles at the Royal Variety Performance in their breakthrough year of 1963

Shaftesbury Theatre: A grid of steel cables and pulleys is high above the stage of what is both the first and last theatre to have been built on Shaftesbury Avenue. It was originally built in 1888 before being destroyed by the Blitz, before another theatre nearby, previously known as the Princes Theatre, was given its name in 1963. It was the first entirely steel-framed theatre

Theatre Royal Drury Lane: The 1947 painted backdrops to Oklahoma!, one of the great post-war musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, are still stored backstage. There are four brick tunnels under the front three rows of the stalls, with one said to have taken King Charles II directly into the Strand to meet his mistress Nell Gwyn on the site of the tavern in Bull Inn Court

Donmar Warehouse: The Covent Garden creative house is a three-sided grey-painted auditorium which is a large cube measure 25ft in all directions. It is one of the more modern West End venues having opened in 1977, and the lighting rig at the top of the space is pictured above. It is located at the top of a staircase and allows 20 people to stand at the back of the gallery

Her Majesty’s Theatre: The ‘thunder run’ in the stage left gallery of the theatre is one of only two remaining in Britain. It is a device using cannon balls, replaced in the modern era by sound effects. All the original stage machinery is built from wood, and under it is a series of lifts, levers, drums and winches is said to give the impression of being below decks at sea

London Palladium: The quick-change area under the stage of the theatre is pictured. It opened in 1910 at a cost of £250,000 or £10million in today’s money, and stands on the site of the Duke of Argyll’s house. In 1971 it was the first theatre to accept credit cards and it has a backstage ‘donkey run’ for live animals which leads from stage level onto Great Marlborough Street



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‘London Theatres’ by Michael Coveney and Peter Dazeley is published by Frances Lincoln for £35. All pictures © Peter Dazeley

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