Every actor of a certain age has a good theatre ghost story – not least because almost every British theatre built more than a century ago seems to boast at least one ghost.
Now company manager Nick Bromley, who has an extraordinary knowledge of Britain’s playhouses, has compiled a number of spooky stories for his new book, Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres.
Bromley started collecting ghost stories when he entered the profession in the 1960s. His West End credits include The Sound of Music, The Woman in White, King Charles III, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Love Never Dies and Prick Up Your Ears.
He says: “I’d always been fascinated by ghost stories since childhood, so it seemed a natural step to start writing them down when I found myself working among people who’d had some kind of paranormal experience.”
Because so many theatre ghost stories have been circulating for so long, Bromley wanted to include as many original and different stories as possible, so it wouldn’t be just an endless litany of “floating ladies in white or grey walking through walls”.
Patrick Stewart’s manifestation occurred in 2009, while he was appearing with Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The venue is notorious for sightings of the mysterious Mr Buckstone, an actor-manager from the Victorian era.
While the play was in progress, Stewart claims to have quite clearly seen someone on stage who should not have been there. He recalls: “I was only looking at him for a few seconds but it was so shocking to me that there was someone on stage with us that the image imprinted itself.”
Of the hundreds of stories in Bromley’s book, which are the ones that stayed with him? “The one I found most extraordinary came from the Everyman in Cheltenham, where a night watchman discovered two huge, unsupported scenery flats, one balanced on top of the other, on the stage at the end of his shift. The flats stood there for a moment before they swayed and came crashing down to the deck.”
The other story he cites is of something he experienced personally while working on Prick Up Your Ears, the play about Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, at the Harold Pinter Theatre. His suspicion was that Orton, a notorious practical joker, was up to his old tricks from beyond the grave.
Bromley had been typing up the nightly show report and when he came to press send, his computer screen went blank. He writes: “I clicked the keyboard again in frustration and then a message appeared. We all stared at it in disbelief but there it was before our eyes. It simply read: ‘It wasn’t me.’ ”
The vast majority of the ghostly manifestations in the book involved larger-than-life characters such as Orton and the 19th-century comedian Dan Leno. Bromley says: “The ghosts are often people who have come to a sad end – suicide, murder, an unhappy affair – and they return to wherever the sadness started or ended.”
At Theatre Royal Margate, actors and staff claim to have seen the ghost of Sarah Thorne, who ran the theatre for 20 years in the late 19th century. In 1934, during rehearsals, an actor screamed when she saw a spectral form leaning over one of the boxes, waving its arms. Another actor rushed out of the circle bar, saw the same vision and promptly fainted.
Possibly the regional theatre with the greatest number of ghosts – or ghostly sightings – is Theatre Royal Bath, where, unusually, there was a mass sighting of the “Grey Lady” in 1975 during a performance of The Dame of Sark, starring Anna Neagle.
Bromley takes up the story: “Dame Anna was standing with four other members of the cast in their opening places on stage. She was astonished to see a column of whirling smoke appearing next to her. She backed away from it as it solidified; cast and audience all saw it take the shape of a woman in period costume. As members of the audience began to climb over their seats in their panic to get away, the rest of the cast beat a hasty exit from the set and the Grey Lady drifted away towards the wings.”
Why does Bromley think theatres are more prone to paranormal sightings than many other public buildings? “Theatres retain memories of the past. I think it’s a combination of the vast numbers of people who have attended theatres and the emotions that have been experienced, either through working there or by being in the audience. Ghostly encounters happen out of the blue, when you’re least expecting it. You can’t just summon them up.”
But what about photographic evidence? In the age of digital photography, it seems odd that nobody has yet managed to capture a spectral presence on a phone camera. Bromley says: “There is always an element of doubt with pictures. I was tempted to use a selfie taken by a couple sitting in the dress circle. Behind them, in the background, there appeared to be two ghostly figures in one of the boxes. I chose not to use it because the couple didn’t actually see whatever it was at the time.”