The stage is a natural home for things dark and ghostly. There were spirits in the plays of Ancient Greece, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth were famously haunted by ghosts, and even today some West End shows delight in making theatregoers jump out of their seats.
But in some of the old, dark theatres of England, the atmosphere is even more spine-chilling when the curtain goes down, as these ageing playhouses are home to members of the cast who are not on the bill – ghosts!
Here we look at seven of England’s most famous haunted theatres whose eerie auditoriums have terrified actors, staff, and theatregoers alike for generations.
1. Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Many of the greatest actors, managers, and playwrights, including Oscar Wilde and John Gielgud, have had career highlights at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. But the celebrated coliseum, on its present site since 1821 and with roots dating back to 1720, has also tingled the spines of many who have passed through its doors.
Eminent comedian and manager of the Haymarket, John Buckstone, died in 1879. It was only a matter of months before this now-famous stage shade was spotted - his spirit was seen sitting in the Royal Box, watching a play. Many other thespians have reported seeing Buckstone’s ghost over the years, including Miss Marple actress Dame Margaret Rutherford in 1961, Sir Patrick Stewart in 2009, and Donald Sinden in 1949.
One cold, foggy night, Sinden was backstage at the Haymarket, where he was performing in The Heiress. Sinden walked past the dressing room of co-star Sir Ralph Richardson. In the room he saw the still figure of a man in a long black frock coat, looking mysteriously out of the window. Sinden said hello to the figure but got no response. Walking away, Sinden then realised that Richardson was on stage, so it could not have been him or any other cast member. He went back to the dressing room, but the figure had gone.
2. Oldham Coliseum
Opened in 1885, the Coliseum was a famous theatre situated in the heart of Oldham, and many Lancashire-born stars, such as Eric Sykes and Thora Hird, have trodden the boards there.
In January 1947, actor Harold Norman was playing Macbeth at the Coliseum. But, unusually for an actor, he wasn’t respecting the play’s ‘curse’. Norman would say lines from the play outside of rehearsals and call the play by its proper name, instead of ‘the Scottish play’, as the famous superstition demands.
Tragically, Norman died in hospital in Oldham on 26th February 1947. His obituary in the Liverpool Echo, published on the day of his death, reported that he had been ‘wounded in a stage battle’ on 30th January that year, accidentally stabbed with a prop sword in the fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff.
Norman died on a Thursday, and this is the day of the week most sightings of the old thespian tend to occur. Norman’s apparition has been spotted sitting in the seats of the Coliseum, doors mysteriously slam shut and items fly off shelves. Dogs have been reported acting incredibly anxious in the theatre, refusing to go into one particular backstage office.
The theatre’s final programme in March 2023, before it closed, honoured Norman with the credit of ‘resident ghost’ in tribute to him.
3. Theatre Royal, York
Built in 1744, the Theatre Royal in York is one of the oldest theatres in the UK. Many of the famous old buildings in this ancient city claim to host a ghost or two, and this historic hippodrome is no different.
One of the most famous of the Theatre Royal’s ghosts is the Grey Lady, believed to be the ghost of a young nun who, in the medieval period, worked at a hospital on the site where the theatre now stands. The legend goes that the young nun fell in love with a local lad, and as punishment for breaking her vows, she was walled up alive somewhere on the hospital grounds.
The Grey Lady has been seen by many people over the years, including veteran stage actress Evelyn Laye in 1975. In August of that year, Laye and the cast were alone in the old auditorium rehearsing for Dear Octopus. Suddenly, floating over the dark, empty seats, was a cloud of grey mist in the shape of a person. Nobody was smoking and all the doors were shut. The mist then glided away and vanished, spooking the cast.
The theatre world is steeped in history and superstition - one of which is that the sighting of a theatre ghost during dress rehearsals is said to signify a successful production. This is particularly true of the Grey Lady, whose apparition has been spotted many times during dress rehearsals. Dear Octopus went on to have a very successful run at York.
4. Adelphi Theatre, London
The grand and imposing Adelphi Theatre on the Strand can trace its roots back to 1806, and for much of that century was known as the home of the melodrama.
Although it is known today for its bright and upbeat musicals, each night as the house lights go down and the theatre empties, the old auditorium must still be an eerie place, and many people over the years have encountered old actors who were not listed in the programme - or even alive. One such wraith in the wings is Willaim Terriss.
On the evening of 16th December 1897, veteran actor Terriss was about to enter the Adelphi Theatre in London. Terriss was heading in to perform a play when he was stabbed by fellow actor Richard Prince, who bore a grudge against him. Terriss then died in the arms of his co-star Jessie Millward, with his last words being, ‘I shall come back’.
One night in 1928, an actress was quietly relaxing on a couch in another dressing room when suddenly she felt as if someone was kicking the sofa. Sitting up and looking around, she could see nobody was there. Lying back down, she felt as if someone was touching her, and a strange green light appeared above her dressing table. Then, two knocks suddenly rang out from by the door. Nobody was there. This was Jessie Millward’s old dressing room, and it was well-known that Terriss always used to rap twice on the door with his cane whenever he passed it.
5. Theatre Royal, Margate
The Theatre Royal in the coastal town of Margate harks back to 1787, and its glory days were in the 19th century under famous actress-manager Sarah Thorne. Thorne’s ghost is one of several spectres that have frequented the Theatre Royal over the years.
Other unearthly residents here include an invisible screaming wraith which wooshes through the building carrying its sinister shriek with it, and a ghost that used to haunt one of the old boxes. This last spirit is said to be the ghost of an actor who killed himself at the theatre in the early Victorian period. The story goes that in the middle of a play, the man stood up from his seat in the box and threw himself into the orchestra pit. The hauntings of this showbiz spectre got so frequent and disturbing that the box had to be bricked up in the 20th century.
In 1966, a decorator named Alfred Tanner was working nights in the theatre, completely alone. On the second night, he heard creepy, unexplained noises, including doors slamming violently shut and the sound of footsteps which would approach him and then stop when he wheeled round to see who it was. Tanner said that he also heard a heavy thud as if an object had landed just in front of the stage. He even said he saw ‘dust rising’ when the mysterious unseen object landed.
6. Lyceum Theatre, Crewe
The historic Lyceum Theatre in Crewe was first built in 1887 and then rebuilt in 1911. Famous actors such as Glenda Jackson and Richard Beckinsale once graced the stage here, but not every noise or trick of the light here is part of the show.
The modern frontage of the Lyceum doesn’t look that scary but imagine yourself in the creaky old theatre at night, with the knowledge that the building was erected on the site of an old graveyard.
The spirit of a glum-looking monk has been seen in the Lyceum many times, as has the distraught-looking phantom of a ballet dancer who killed herself in her dressing room. Theatre staff, punters, and actors have reported strange goings on here over the decades, and on one occasion the spirits of both the monk and the ballet dancer were seen on stage at the same time.
7. Theatre Royal, Bristol
The Theatre Royal in Bristol was built in 1766, and throughout its long history, many great actors have gone here to tread its famous boards, from Sarah Siddons to Peter O’Toole.
One of the resident ghosts at the Theatre Royal is Sarah Macready, an actress and long-time manager of the theatre who died in 1853. When Sarah’s ghost is encountered, dressed completely in black, it is said to suddenly turn very cold in the theatre, with a smell of perfume in the air. Sarah’s ghost once sent a nightwatchman running out of the building when she bellowed at him to ‘get out!’.
Sarah’s ghost has often been spotted sitting in one particular box of the auditorium, seen by many over the years including comedian Michael Bentine.