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Jacob Tonson

The Other National Theatre

The story of the most famous theatre in the world

Publication date: 21 May 2013

Shortlisted by the Society for Theatre Research for the 2013 Theatre Book Prize

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is a remarkable place.

It's Nell Gwynne in The Conquest of Granada and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady; it's the china scene in The Country Wife and the screen scene in The School for Scandal; it's David Garrick as Richard III and Carlo the dog jumping into a tank of water in The Caravan; it's Dora Jordan showing her legs in As You Like It and Ivor Novello showing his profile in Glamorous Night; Madame Vestris dragged up as Don Giovanni and Dan Leno dragged up as Mother Goose; Grimaldi falling through a trapdoor and fracturing his collarbone and Edmund Kean delaying the curtain for Venice Preserv'd because 'I always take a shag before the play begins'; Isaac Van Amburgh's lions and the first production in English of The Magic Flute; it's pantomimes with 500 people on the stage and the first British performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; it's horses running the Derby, the Two Thousand Guineas and Ben Hur's chariot race; it's The Bohemian Girl and Miss Saigon; 'Rule Britannia' and 'Ol' Man River'.

It's the theatre where Aaron Hill was locked out by rebellious actors, where actors led by the rebellious Theophilus Cibber were locked out by the management and where Sheridan was locked in until he completed The Critic; where Sarah Siddons made George III cry and Ivor Novello made Queen Mary cry.

It's the theatre where Shakespeare spelt ruin and Byron bankruptcy, but managers still put them on because it might just work this time.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was regarded as the National Theatre for hundreds of years before there was such an institution. It gets no money from the government, it does eight shows a week, and you might get a ticket if you turn up tonight.