Case study: The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane Historic Machinery Restoration

The Dorothea team has completed the restoration of a unique piece of historic machinery in London's West End through recommissioning the Victorian hydraulic stage bridges.

This historic machinery project saw our engineering experts restoring and successfully re-commissioning Victorian hydraulic stage bridges at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The Dorothea team designed, manufactured, and installed a new hydraulic pump system, as well as servicing and repairing the original historic machinery.

These unique pieces of equipment, originally installed in the late 1890s, had not previously moved for more than two decades. The stage lifts are believed to be unique to the Theatre Royal, so there were no plans or previous projects to draw from. In addition, the schedule of work had to be fitted around the demands of a busy theatre, with our original survey being carried out before the recent production of Lord of the Rings, and then all the work on site being carried out in the six weeks immediately after that show closed.

Theatre Royal through the Ages

There have been four “Theatre Royals” over the last 400 years on Drury Lane. Following the banning of frivolous pastimes under the puritan interregnum and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 a playhouse was constructed in 1663. It was closed during the great plague of London in 1665 and managed to survive the great fire of London, only to be burned down several years later in 1672.

Little is known of the second theatre that took its place, other than that it was demolished in 1791 to make way for the third. This new theatre, which opened in 1794, was vast and able to take an audience of 3600 - Except for churches, it was the tallest building in London.

That been said, the sheer size wasn’t popular with theatre goers complaining of a lack of intimacy. An assassination attempt against King George III took place at the theatre in May 1800. James Hadfield fired two pistol shots from the pit toward the King, sitting in the royal box. Missing by a matter of inches, the gunman was subdued and the King, apparently unperturbed, ordered the show to go on. Alas, this theatre burnt down too in 1809.

The present Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt opened in 1812. Duly noting previous audiences dislike of the sheer size, the replacement theatre seated about 500 fewer people that its predecessor. In 1820 the portico front entrance, still standing to this day, on Catherine St was added. The colonnade running down the Russell St side of the building was added in 1831.

The last major interior overhaul was in 1922 leaving a four-tiered theatre seating just over 2000 in an audience. Its interiors, produced by Clark and Fenn, a specialist decorative plasterwork company, were some of the most lavish works of the time. The theatre was closed in 1939 on account of WWII serving as HQ the Entertainments National Service Association before reopening in 1946 and remaining very much so to this day.

Back to case studies