Theatres are traditionally haunted spaces, and those in London’s West End are no exception. Theatre itself has been present in the West End since 1663, when the Theatre Royal was built on the site of what is now Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The Lane exists on the site of the West End’s first ever theatre, is London’s oldest working theatre and has been dubbed the most haunted theatre in Britain.
‘The Man in Grey’ is The Lane’s most famous ghost and is often seen frequenting the Grand Circle in a tricorn hat and riding cloak. From the Man in Grey to the ghost of William Terris, an actor stabbed at the stage door of the Adelphi in 1897 who, true to his final words, “came back” to cause supernatural havoc in the theatre, to the 18th century mistress who haunts the Crimson Staircase at the Palladium, there is no shortage of ghosts in the West End.
History of HMT
His Majesty’s (known as Her Majesty’s before the Coronation of Charles III and Camilla earlier this year) sits on the corner of Haymarket and Charles II Street in London’s Theatre District. The first theatre on the site was an opera house, which opened in 1705. The current building was the fourth to be built on this site, in 1897. Built by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, it was renowned initially for staging his spectacular productions of Shakespeare plays, melodramas and literary adaptations. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that musicals, including Brigadoon, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and, of course, Phantom, began to be performed on the stage at His Majesty’s.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree
So we know that the current theatre was built by Herbert Beerbohm Tree to stage his own productions, but who exactly was Beerbohm Tree? Beerbohm Tree played many roles, both on and off stage. On stage, he starred as Fagin in Oliver Twist in 1905 and Henry Higgins in the original production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1914. Off stage, Beerbohm Tree not only owned and ran the theatre, he lived in it, too. He built his apartment inside the Dome of the theatre and even gave speech and drama lessons from there, a practice which led to the establishment of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art by Beerbohm Tree and his peers. Since his death in 1917, numerous sightings of Beerbohm Tree’s ghost have been reported around His Majesty’s by theatre staff and performers alike.
Beerbohm Tree’s Ghost
Those who are familiar with Beerbohm Tree may already know that his favourite place to watch performances was the top box on stage right. Audience members sitting in the top box frequently complain of sudden temperature drops, as well as the door swinging open by itself. Not only that, but an ex-fireman recalls closing up the empty theatre after an evening performance. As usual, being the last person left in the building, he went to shut the stage door behind him, but felt resistance on the other side. Upon looking up through the window, the fireman was met by a figure, in Victorian garb and wearing a top hat reminiscent of Beerbohm Tree’s, pushing against the door with both hands. Similarly, several stage-hands have heard footsteps on the stage above them, despite believing they were the only people in the building. Others have spotted Beerbohm in the Dome, often standing by the fireplace of his former quarters.
Whether au fait with the supernatural or not, you may be familiar with the story of comedic legend of Tommy Cooper, who tragically died onstage during a live TV performance of Live From Her Majesty’s. Initially believing it to be the slapstick punchline of one of Cooper’s characteristically over-the-top gags, the audience initially continued laughing, until the backstage crew realised what was happening. They cut to a commercial break whilst they dragged him offstage and into the props room in the wing, where he died a few minutes later. An old stage-hand describes how the fruit and food dishes for the Don Juan scene in Phantom are kept in the props room and, on many occasions, plastic apples and oranges have flown off the shelves and hit various assistant stage managers, who suspect Cooper to be the perpetrator of the pranks.
The Opera Ghost
The Phantom of the Opera is His Majesty’s longest-running production, having celebrated its 37th birthday earlier this month. In the story, The Phantom is a mysterious masked man who lurks deep beneath the Paris Opera House, frequently haunting its staff and performers. The musical is based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same name, and Leroux’s Phantom is supposedly inspired by rumours of a ghost in the real-life Paris Opera House at the time of writing the novel.
Early on in Act 1, Monsieurs Firmin and Andre receive a threatening note from the Opera Ghost demanding ownership of Box 5. Ben Forster, who played The Phantom on stage here from 2016-2017, remembers noticing mid-performance that someone was watching the show from Box 5 at His Majesty’s. You can now purchase tickets to view the show from Box 5, but this was not the case at the time of Forster’s sighting. A past Christine recalls rehearsing Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again before an evening performance. Spotting someone in what appeared to be a Firmin costume, she later asked a worker who else was rehearsing at the time and received the response that she was the only person there. Ellen Jackson, a long-serving cast member of the show, describes how every time she passed from stage left to stage right, she heard someone saying her name. Once, when in Room 94, she felt the overwhelming urge to flinch and duck. Moments later, a wig flew off of a nearby mannequin.
Whether or not you believe in them, the theatre seems a likely place for ghosts to reside. It comes as no surprise that the stages of the West End, where acting legends have tread the boards, bringing hundreds of characters to life for centuries, are the setting of some downright terrifying tales. It is rather apt, then, that this wonderful theatre has housed one of London’s (and Paris’) most famed phantasm for the past 37 years.