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Treading The Boards: A Piece of Theatre History

The King and I

You can now buy a piece of Theatre History.

Our cheeseboards are made from the stage of Theatre Royal Drury Lane; the oldest theatre on the same site in the world.

Originally granted a royal patent by King Charles II, the first theatre opened in 1663 and, over several centuries and four incarnations, Theatre Royal Drury Lane became the pioneer of theatrical innovation and the birthplace of modern theatre.

During our illustrious history, David Garrick created naturalism in acting and introduced regular rehearsals, moving scenery, sex equality and coloured lighting, Nell Gwynne became one of the world’s first actresses, giving splendid performances onstage, Augustus Harris introduced modern pantomime and Michael Balfe wrote the world’s first musical.

To act on the stage is known as ‘Treading the Boards’. Your ‘board’ has been trodden on by some of the greatest stars and played host to the world’s most spectacular productions.

In 1909, in The Whip, The Lane staged a full-sized train crash and the running of the 2000 Guineas horserace with twelve live thoroughbred horses. Your piece of stage has seen an air-rescue, two divers in an underwater fight, an airship, a sunken galleon, a submarine and, using the incredible Victorian substage machinery, we raised and lowered the stage to create such spectacle as an earthquake in Ivor Novello’s Careless Rapture, the River Seine flooding a Paris nightclub and a troop ship with 400 actors on board sinking beneath the waves in Noel Coward’s Cavalcade.

Ivor Novello in Henry V

Ivor Novello

Although ‘straight’ plays continued to be performed (Sir Jon Gielgud as Prospero in The Tempest being an unmissable event), the era of the musical arrived in 1925 and took Drury Lane by storm. Edith Day starred in Rose Marie, Anna Neagle in The Desert Song and Paul Robeson brought the house downwith his mercurial rendition of ‘Ol Man River in Showboat. The public were transfixed. Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Nights and The Dancing Years were succeeded by Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and the shows and stars that were to become legends:

The incomparable Julie Andrews reigned supreme as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, winning the nation’s hearts as well as that of Rex Harrison.

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady

Howard Keel starred in Oklahoma, which became the first production to combine music, dance and drama, Mary Martin won critical acclaim in South Pacific and The King And I and Camelot also played to rave reviews. The musical floodgates had opened and along came Hello Dolly (Dora Bryan), Mame (Ginger Rogers), Gone With The Wind, Billy (Michael Crawford and Elaine Paige), A Chorus Line, No No Nannette, Sweeney Todd (Sheila Hancock), Oliver! (Rowan Atkinson and Gryff Rhys Jones), The Producers (Nathan Lane and Lee Evans), Lord Of The Rings (the most expensive musical at the time), Shrek, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (Douglas Hodge), 42nd Street (Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 1984 production and Sheena Easton, Lulu and Bonnie Langford in the 2017 revival) and, of course, Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga and John Barrowman in Miss Saigon, which went on to become Drury Lane’s longest running show, mesmerising audiences for 10 years and 4263 performances.

And the other stars that graced this most famous stage; too many to mention them all:

Lillie Langtree, Gladys Cooper, Frank Benson (the only actor in the world to have been knighted in a theatre), Claude Rains, Sybil Thorndike, Herbert Lom, Ronnie Corbett, Bob Monkhouse, Harry Secombe, Roy Castle, the Pythons, Millicent Martin, Julia Mackenzie, Richard Blackwood, Carol Channing, Amanda Holden, June Whitfield and French and Saunders. Who would have turned down the chance to see Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fontaine dance on this stage? And the stars at the flowering of their careers who you would not have expected to see in a musical: Stewart Grainger in The Sun Never Sets, Larry Hagman in South Pacific and a young, future James Bond, the majestic Sean Connery, in A Chorus Line.

The history of Theatre Royal Drury Lane has been a long and illustrious one and now you own a part of that history. Remember that the spectacular helicopter in the stunning Miss Saigon may once have landed on your cheeseboard.

You can buy our cheeseboards at our retail kiosk in The Lane. Click here for opening times.

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