We have investigated the UK’s most frightening theatres to try to catch a glimpse beyond the curtain and see what continues to walk their halls…
These are real stories from real people, explore their experiences below and watch out the next time you go to take in a show – there might be someone else trying to share your seat…
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Having opened in 1904, the King’s Theatre on Bath Street, Glasgow has cultivated a long history across over a century of performances. It is known for putting on some of the best Christmas pantomimes in the UK and supporting amateur and professional theatre alike, but there’s another side to the theatre that guests may not know, as when the lights turn low and it’s just the staff who roam the seats, it becomes apparent that they aren’t alone…
“We don’t know who it is but I’ve been in the gallery several times and heard the seats tip,” explained Joan Neil, Head Stage Doorkeeper at King’s Theatre. “I would sit and read before the house opened and one night I decided to sit and watch to see if I could see anything. Nothing happened so I started reading my book. As soon as I started reading [again] I heard the seats tipping.”
“The former night watchman went to lock the Front of House areas and had his dog, Candy, with him,” she continued. “One night, they were coming through the pass door by the stage and Candy stopped at the prop room and refused to move any further. Charles eventually had to take her around another way so they could get back to stage door. There was definitely something in the prop room.”
Oh, and if you ever get chance to visit under the stage you may want to give it a miss as Joan assured us that “there’s definitely a presence under the stage,” but that the spirits that inhabit the theatre appear to be friendly so far…
The Alexandra in Birmingham, affectionately referred to as The Alex, has had a somewhat turbulent history over the years. In 1910, barely a decade into its life and already having changed hands once, the theatre claimed its first victim when owner Lester Collingwood died in a tragic accident.
He was succeeded by Leon Salberg, whose family would go on to run the theatre for the next 65 years, but it was only in 1937 when Leon died in his office backstage. According to the theatre’s historian, Julia Kirby, Leon’s spirit still haunts the theatre to this day, even after his office has been transformed into a bar and now dressing room…
“During the time in which his old office was a bar, it is said that a tray with a champagne bottle and glasses moved from one end of the bar all by itself… Staff and patrons at the time declared that the room must be haunted by the ghost of Leon.”
“Back in the 60s and 70s, when the theatre produced all of its own shows and wardrobe was a hive of activity as costumes were designed and made on site, the wardrobe staff would often come in in the morning and find costumes scattered around the floor, even though they had left it neatly the night before.”
“They believe it was Leon objecting to the designs!”
Frequently these ghostly apparitions are caught by the cleaning staff early in the morning when few others are around, with one having reported a sighting in the area that is now the Ambassador lounge but which used to be a bar.
“Very early one morning a cleaner was in there by herself using her vacuum,” explains Kirby. “Suddenly a dimly lit figure came down the steps at the end of the room, waved at her and disappeared through the door at the other end of the room. The cleaner screamed and ran from the room – she knew that the only other person in the building was another cleaner who was backstage. Apparently, she refused to ever enter that room again.”
Could that friendly apparition be Leon still taking care of his theatre? It would appear that he isn’t the only one to refuse to give up his post, with reports of a former stage manager, Mr. Turner, still walking the halls several years after his death…
“One time during a performance of a play called ‘The Scottish Play’, during the mid-afternoon and as she was coming down from her dressing room, an actress came into the crew room and asked who the gentleman that passed her on the stairs was,” says Kirby. “She had smiled and said hello to him but he had ignored her and passed on by. His clothes seemed oddly old fashioned too..”
“When she described him to the staff in the crew room, they didn’t recognise him and said that only they and the actress were in the building. However one of the older members of staff looked a little confused and said it sounded like Mr. Turner.”
“Mr. Turner was a former stage manager who had almost lived on the premises during his time here. He used to stand on stage jangling his keys and on a Sunday sat at Stage Door reading the newspapers. However Mr. Turner had died 5 years before…”
That key jangling has been a sound heard at the theatre on numerous occasions, chilling and oddly distant, alongside mysterious footsteps walking across the stage. Kirby explained that a technician she had spoken to detailed an experience where those footsteps were heard very clearly, with the sound of a dolly truck (used for carrying scenery) following closely behind.
Could that sound have been the remnant of an old stage hand returning to their familiar work? Or could it have been the strange figure seen by a chaperone on a tour of the theatre? She reported a figure wearing a top hat and old fashioned clothes, but when she went to look again he was gone… Later on in the tour, she heard steps leading into the very same dressing room that was once Leon’s office…
Some staff have found the Grand Circle to be the most haunted of all, leaving shivers down the spine and hairs rising as if someone had just passed right behind despite no one being there at all.
Are the staff at The Alexandra scared? Of course not, but that doesn’t stop them announcing themselves when they enter the Ambassador Lounge and Grand Circle, it’s only courteous after all…
The Richmond theatre has a long reputation as being one of the most haunted in the UK – it was built in 1899, and disturbing experiences seem to centre around some of the oldest parts of the building…
Climb the stairs that lead to the parts of the original theatre where the print stores lie and you may feel someone walking closely behind you. One box office assistant once reported reaching the bottom of the same stairs to the print stores and hearing them creaking and groaning with the weight of a person who was simply not there, only to feel a sharp chill run through them as the last step creaked in front of them.
Descend into parts of the sub-stage and you may find boxes moved, leaving scratch marks behind them, lights flicked on and off seemingly on their own and doors being slammed around you.
Once, a theatre administrator was covering the stage door whilst the theatre was dark when they heard an odd scratching coming from the tannoy. Assuming it was just interference, the staff member carried on and the scratching soon stopped, but then as they went to leave through the stage door, the scratching began again, more purposeful as if nails were scratching their way through wood.
They checked backstage and nothing seemed out of place but as they followed the corridor from stage left, the sound began again except this time from a different source. The staff member pursued the sound down the bottom of the stairs leading to the sub-stage and into the print stores where they found the door open. They walked inside, flicked on the light and heard the sound of a box being scratched. Scanning the room, they found the suspect box and saw nail marks being made across the cardboard – but no one as there to make them.
Then, the lightbulb is said to have blown out and the sound of scratching gave way to carboard tearing in the darkness. The staff member could just about make out the outline of a man, extending his arm to the top shelf and pulling boxes down. Terrified, they turned and ran from the room, just as a box fell from the shelf behind them, spilling the contents to the floor.
The next day, when more staff went to investigate what the administrator had witnessed, they found the door still wide open and a box of flyers spilt all over the floor, two footprints left in the dust. It turns out that this room had been where a man died in the early 1930s, suffering fatal head injuries after a storage unit of boxes collapsed on top of him…
This Edwardian building has had it’s fair share of supernatural activities over the years, documented thoroughly by their very own Stage Door Keeper and Paranormal Investigator, Marq English.
In his book Paranormal Surrey, English explored some of the origins of the theatre’s various presences and their manifestations today. In one excerpt, he mentions how ”[A few years ago] a lady experienced the pressure of a strong female energy by the front of the stage and was almost knocked back by the force.”
In another, English talks about how “an usher was clearing after a performance and heard a woman whistling from the ladies lavatory. Thinking a patron was still in the building, she called out that the theatre was closing – only to find when entering the toilet that no one was there!”
Some of these supernatural occurrences can be traced back to when the theatre was still new, when it was said to have killed a young actress after a part of the set collapsed on top of her. English writes that one night, famed sceptic and General Manager Mike Lyas was working late when he saw a beautiful woman dressed in Edwardian clothes suddenly standing before him. Perhaps these apparitions are all one in the same and the young actress is still pursuing her career to this day…
She hasn’t been the only ghostly figure spotted by visitors, with a well-dressed man in smart evening wear sometimes spotted wandering the corridor and entering the auditorium through the Dress Circle to watch shows, sitting in B27 to be exact. Some believe that this could be the spirit of JB Mulholland, entrepreneur, theatre lover and founder of the theatre, looking after the venue he adored so much.
Back in the 1980’s, the theatre had only just undergone a huge refurbishment and been checked over the fire department themselves to ensure the valve system for the sprinklers was working perfectly, when the serving manager was suddenly woken up at 2am to the sound of the alarm bell. They rushed down to the auditorium only to see that the sprinklers were drenching the stage.
The fire department returned to check the systems again, but no fault could be found and nothing was out of place…
Whilst these stories may seem like hearsay, English himself has experienced a particularly odd occurrence: “I was backstage in the crew room when a hardhat that had been on a high shelf for many weeks literally flipped up in the air and fell to the floor, which naturally startled me somewhat. I felt the only thing I could do in my astonished state was say ‘Thanks’”
“Pity there was no reply back!”
Back in 2016, Darlington was left shocked after photos made it to the Express showing ghostly apparitions sitting in the stalls of the Hippodrome, taken by the construction team when the theatre was undergoing significant works.
In the photo, it would appear that a man wearing a top hat is sat next to a woman dressed in Edwardian evening wear, and those familiar with the theatre’s history were quick to single out who this could be…
The first managing director of the theatre, Signor Rino Pepi, was beloved by many in his hey-day. Born in Florence, Italy, in 1872, Pepi threw himself into theatre, earning recognition all over Europe for his talents, performing in capital cities and royal houses. On that journey, Pepi met and fell in love with Countess Mary de Rossetti, half Italian and half Irish. She taught him English and the pair emigrated to London where Pepi continued his love affair with theatre, first as an actor and then as a founder.
In 1907, he began work on an “Opera House and Empire” in Parkgate, Darlington, building an apartment within the theatre so he could continue to work late into the night and check on the acts performing in his theatre.
It’s unsurprising then that after such a journey and passion for this theatre, Pepi was reluctant to leave its halls, continuing to check on performances and construction with the aid of his wife, the Countess. “There have been many sightings of a tall gentleman in a top hat (one such as Signor Pepi used to wear) walking across the back of the dress circle,” says Julian Cound, marketing officer for the theatre. “Obviously he still likes to keep a close eye on the acts performing at the venue today.”
Such was Pepi’s tie to the theatre that some have even seen his Pekinese dog roaming the theatre today, perhaps also tied to the theatre following the discovery of a small dog’s skeleton in the foundations of the theatre during building work in the mid 1980’s.
Other sightings have included a young girl in dressing room 12, heard crying by Cound who was using that dressing room, whilst the jangling of phantom keys has been heard pacing the corridors late at night as old door-keeps hold the line into the afterlife, keen to lock up after everyone has left.
“None of the ghosts at the theatre are scary – they all have such a close connection to the theatre that we know they are simply looking over us, ensuring that the theatre they loved so much is being treated kindly,” Cound explains. “Most sightings have been in and around the auditorium and dressing rooms – which were the oldest parts of the theatre.”
“Following the recent restoration, while the beautiful Edwardian auditorium still remains, the old dressing rooms have been turned into public areas, so maybe in the future more sightings will be experienced by the general public.”
The grand halls of theatres across the country continue be walked by the ghosts of their former occupants, some still tirelessly working their old jobs and others trying to continue their chase for fame, but hopefully that hasn’t scared you out of your next trip to the theatre. Just watch out for who might – or might not – be sitting next to you…
Test your luck and explore your local theatre now…
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