Picture the scene. You're strolling through the sunlit streets of theatreland when your play-going companion starts spouting the worst theatre-related opinions known to mankind. "Love Never Dies is better than Phantom," they tell you. "Les Miserables is too long. And Lin-Manuel Miranda can't sing." There's only one way to stem the tide of horribleness and that's by producing a nugget of fascinating theatre history from your back pocket. Luckily, we've got 10 fun facts about theatre history to entertain you with here: read on and thank us later.
Incredible fun facts about theatre history
1. Dominion Theatre is built on the site of the Great Beer Flood
Today, audiences flock to the Dominion to see Dirty Dancing. But back in 1814 the site housed a huge brewery whose vats of beer exploded: with delicious-but-deadly consequences. Eight people were killed by the ensuing tidal wave of porter. Remember them next time you're 'Having the time of your life'.
2. Savoy Theatre was the world's first public venue to be lit wholly by electricity
In Victorian times, theatres were dimly lit, stuffy and smelly places: gas lamps guzzled oxygen and emitted noxious fumes and heat. So electricity was a literal breath of fresh air. In 1881, Savoy Theatre was the first venue to be lit wholly by electricity, and its owner D'Oyly Carte even took to the stage to smash a light bulb to prove that this new technology was totally safe.
3. You can fit the whole of the Fortune Theatre on the stage of the Dominion Theatre
It's easy to see West End theatres as interchangeable, massive spaces. But they differ hugely in age, shape and size. The teeny-tiny Fortune Theatre, home to The Woman in Black, has just 432 steeply stacked seats: its two balconies give it a neat footprint that would fit on the stage of the vast, 2,069 seater Dominion Theatre.
4. Peacock Theatre is allegedly haunted by ghost dolphins
Every theatre has a ghost story or two but the squeaking spooks of Peacock Theatre are particularly unusual. Apparently, in the 1970s two dolphins were kept in tanks under the stage, ready to star in a variety show - but they died of neglect, and their ghosts still haunt the venue to this day.
5. The author of Dracula once managed the Lyceum Theatre
When he wasn't writing blood-curdling vampire tales, Bram Stoker was busy with the day-to-day management of the Lyceum Theatre for Sir Henry Irving, the actor who owned it. Irving is even said to be the inspiration for Dracula, with his forbidding features and the draining demands he put onto his talented employee.
6. Prince Charles once compared the National Theatre to a nuclear power station
Today, National Theatre is a treasured landmark, lighting up Southbank with the gorgeous coloured projections that adorn its textured facade. But it wasn't always loved. When it was first built in 1976, Prince Charles compared it to a "nuclear power station", and it regularly appeared on polls of Britain's ugliest buildings. Now, as Brutalist architecture becomes fashionable once more, it's getting its moment in the spotlight.
7. Donmar Warehouse used to be a literal warehouse
It was used first as a hops warehouse for a local brewer, then as a banana-ripening depot for Covent Garden market. When the RSC converted it into a theatre in 1977, they worked so fast that the theatre got electricity just 30 minutes before curtain up and the concrete steps were still wet when the first audiences arrived.
8. Covent Garden is named after a monastery
Home to the majority of London's theatres, Covent Garden is a hectic hub for socialising and having fun. But it wasn't always this way. It got its name in the 13th century, when it was a peaceful 'covent' (an Anglo-French word for monastery) garden with fruit trees and arable land.
9. The show must go on... even during WWII
Covid might have closed the West End for months on end, but London's entertainment district kept entertaining locals almost throughout WWII. During the Blitz, the Windmill Theatre's saucy 'Revudeville' kept playing. And during the rest of the war, a wide range of shows were performed with special illuminated signs that warned audiences if air raids were underway: some guests would quietly slip out to make for the nearest shelter, but others would stay put and enjoy the show.
10. The Globe Theatre is the only central London building with a thatched roof
Since the Great Fire of London in 1666, there's been a law against buildings having thatched roofs. So when Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was built in 1997, it had to seek special permission to replicate the thatched roof of Shakespeare's day.
Theatre history is full of fascinating fun facts: the fun facts listed above just scratch the surface of the West End's many stories. If you want to learn more about theatre history, we recommend a visit to wonderful UK theatre history website Arthur Lloyd, which offers theatre facts galore.