Halloween is just a few days away. The shops are full of witches’ hats, vampire fangs and pumpkins ready to be carved into Jack-o-lanterns. There will be trick or treating, costume parties, and ghost stories.
As ghosts are supposed to haunt places imbibed with strong emotions, it’s unsurprising that London’s Theatreland, has numerous tales of spectral apparitions. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s most famous ghost is the Man in Grey, a young man in a grey cloak and an eighteenth century three-cornered hat, who walks from one side of the upper circle to the other, sometimes stopping to watch rehearsals, before vanishing into the far wall. He has been seen by actors, members of the audience and the theatre’s managers, who must surely welcome his appearance as it seems to signify the start of a successful, long-running show. Half the cast of The Dancing Years, on stage for a photo call, saw him in 1939. He made an appearance every time there was a cast change for Miss Saigon. The Victorian renovation of the theatre revealed a hidden room behind the wall through which the ghost always vanishes, in which was found a skeleton wrapped in grey cloth with a dagger protruding from its ribs, but to date the Man in Grey’s identity is unknown.
Other ghosts of the Theatre Roya include Joe Grimaldi, the famous white-faced clown, who is sometimes seen as a disembodied white face, and has been known to give actors and front of house staff a playful kick. A drumming sound, often heard coming from the former dressing room of Dan Leno, the first pantomime dame, is said to be his ghost practising his trade-mark clog routine
The Adelphi Theatre is haunted by the actor William Terris who was stabbed to death in 1897 by a bitterly jealous understudy, outside the stage door. As well as making ghostly entrances on stage, he knocks on the door of the dressing room that once belonged to his lover, the actress Jessica Millward, in whose arms he died. He also haunts Covent Garden tube station, formerly the site of his favourite cake shop.
At the Fortune Theatre, actors on stage in the Woman in Black, have reported seeing a second woman dressed in black in the wings, in addition to the actress playing the title role. A lady in a crinoline has been observed on the Crimson Staircase at the back of the Palladium’s royal circle, while the Old Vic is haunted a woman with a blood-stained hand – it has been suggested that this is stage make-up. Over at the Piccadilly, when the portrait of an actress was removed from a wall there was a spate of poltergeist activity which stopped once the painting was re-hung.
As well as the spirits of actors unwilling to leave the stage, the West End is also haunted by members of the audience. At the Lyceum, an elderly female ghost sitting in the stalls, cradling a male head, was spotted by a couple looking down from their box. Some years later the couple recognised the head in the portrait of a former owner of the theatre. The London Coliseum is haunted by the ghost of a World War II soldier who spent his last night on leave watching a show, before he was killed in action.
So why is there so much supernatural activity in London’s theatres? It has been suggested that the sightings of ghosts are no more than the result of the over-active, dramatic imagination of thespians combined with the eerie atmosphere of an empty auditorium. I rather like the idea that the ghostly actors still treading the boards, the spectral managers still mingling with the first night crowds, and the phantoms still applauding in the stalls are there because the theatre is their passion, and they are simply unwilling to take their final curtain call.