11 January 2024 • 5 Mins Read

10 Unknown Facts about London West End Theatre

The West End is a hub of social and cultural importance; for centuries it is has been the beating heart of London. With countless playhouses drenched in history, it’s the perfect place to unearth stories from the city's past. Here, WST present just a few interesting facts about the West End and various London Theatre Shows; tales that are sure to make students fall in love with the area.

1. The Phantom’s make up

It takes two hours to apply the Phantom of the Opera's make-up before each show and 30 minutes to remove it afterwards. After moisturising and shaving the actor’s face, prosthetics are fitted, alongside two wigs and two differently coloured contact lenses.

2. The Macbeth Curse

It’s considered bad luck to say 'Macbeth' in a theatre and, with tales of actors being knocked over by falling set pieces or stabbed accidentally with real daggers, many tragic incidents have been blamed on ‘the curse’.

During a particular performance, one actor fell 15 feet into an orchestra pit. She was surprisingly unhurt, although we aren’t sure that the curse is responsible for this event. She was pretending to sleepwalk and had her eyes shut.

However, many superstitious actors are reluctant to utter the word Macbeth in theatres, preferring to use the moniker ‘The Scottish Lord’ instead.

3. The Ghosts of Drury Lane

Apparently, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is haunted by several ghosts. The spirit of actor Charles Macklin is said to be a 'tall, thin, and ugly' ghost with a bad temper. Not all ghosts on Drury Lane are ill-natured though. The ghost of Joseph Grimaldi - perhaps the most popular clown in pantomime - is said to guide nervous actors around the stage. There have also been rumours of a ‘Man in Grey’ - sightings of him are surprisingly said to be good luck.

4. Actors’ wages

During his first year at Drury Lane, Joseph Grimaldi was paid just £1 a week although his debut show, ‘Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg’, made £20,000 over the course of its run. Nowadays, West End actors are typically paid between £518 and £633 a week depending on the number of seats in the venue.

5. The Great London Beer Flood

The West End’s Dominion Theatre stands on the site of the Great Beer Flood of 1814. The tragedy, which killed eight people, occurred when the Horse Shoe Brewery burst open and flooded the St.Giles neighbourhood on Tottenham Court Road. More than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s wall and caused a wave that was 15-foot high. Two hundred years later, some rumours suggest that many victims were crushed not only by the flood itself, but also by hundreds of people rushing to drink free beer from the streets.

6. World War 2 and the West End

During the Second World War, a total of 167 bombs were dropped on the West End. Bomb Sight, a WW2 bomb census, maps the areas which were affected, allowing users to see historic images of the aftermath. 

7. Dancing from London to Norwich

In 1600, Shakespeare’s favourite clown, William Kempe, Morris-danced 100 miles from London to Norwich in just nine days. Traditionally, Morris Dancing involves dancing on the spot, which wouldn’t have got him anywhere. So we suspect that he must have introduced some leaps and steps into his routine in order to travel such a long distance in a short time frame.

8. Shakespeare as Lady Macbeth

In 1606, William Shakespeare had to step in and play Lady Macbeth. Hal Berridge, the boy actor who was supposed to play Macbeth's wife, had died very suddenly during the play’s run, forcing Shakespeare himself to take over. The show must go on, after all.

9. Break a Leg

Saying the words ‘break a leg’ didn’t become popular until the 1920s, although it’s difficult to determine the origins of this popular phrase, still in use today. It's assumed that people used the term because they thought wishing someone good luck would jinx them. 

10. Weird Shakespearean words

We can thank Shakespeare for inventing over 1,700 of the words that we still use to this day. He created many of these by turning nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, and connecting words that had never been used together previously. However, although he gave us words like exposure, advertising, and hobnob (where would we be without chocolate biscuits?), he also created some very silly ones that are virtually unheard of today. ‘Kicky-wicky’, for example, is a Shakespearean word for wife.

Learn even more on a West End School Trip

One of the best ways to learn more about the magical West End involves taking a trip there as a group. A school trip to London gives students the chance to explore the capital and discover some of the city’s greatest tales.

At WST, we offer school trips for English or history students to London. Students will be able to develop their Shakespeare knowledge and enjoy some of the world’s most famous plays. Start your school trip journey by requesting a quote today.