Adam, Gilbert Scott, Pugin and Wyatt. Architectural dynasties. Terry and Squire. Current second generation architects. Benjamin Dean Wyatt was heavily involved, among many others, in the design of Lancaster House, built in 1825 to 1840 for the ‘grand old’ Duke of York and subsequently the Duke of Sutherland. This Bath stone pure Regency statement doubles as Buckingham Palace in the Netflix series The Crown. The house is set back from The Mall a few doors down from Clarence House. It’s as big as a whole city plot. Benjamin designed the staircase which is scagliol’d to the nines, gilt to the hilt. Now occupied by the Foreign Office, Lancaster House is hidden from public view. Theatre Royal Drury Lane in Covent Garden is not.
Benjamin Dean Wyatt was the eldest son of the better known James Wyatt. His public venue of 1812 has been comprehensively restored and renewed by architecture firm Haworth Tompkins. A cool £60 million later, the Grade I Listed Building doubles as a theatre and upstairs restaurant serving afternoon tea. There’s another restaurant tucked away downstairs through an archway. Much has been written and rightly so on the rejuvenation of the theatre space itself: this article concentrates on the suite of reception areas fronting the building. A Pantheon inspired domed rotunda flanked by sweeping cantilevered staircases leading to the Grand Saloon and adjoining Ante Room overlooking the portico has all the presence of a grand country house. Combine a stair with the rotunda and you’ll come close to the showpiece of Townley Hall in County Louth.
A theatre has occupied this spot on Drury Lane since 1663 making it the oldest playhouse site in continuous use in history. In 2020 the architectural historian Simon Thurley, former Chief Executive of English Heritage, discovered at a provincial sale a print of Benjamin Dean Wyatt’s original Gothic Revival design for the theatre. The Prince of Wales at the time directed a change of design; not the first time a Prince of Wales has interfered in an architectural scheme. Thanks to Prince Charles’ intervention, Richard Rogers’ modernist designs for the residential redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks were scrapped to be replaced by Squire and Partners’ more conservative mansion blocks and townhouses.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane is owned and operated by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company LW Theatres. Project Director Steve Tompkins explains, “Drury Lane is the history of British theatre in one building. Much of our task has been to protect and restore its astonishing original qualities. It’s hard to imagine a more complex or more delicate theatre restoration than this one.”
Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber says, “I believe the Lane is now one of London’s most warm and beautiful auditoriums. It’s the most versatile historic theatrical space anywhere in the world.” His lordship has added prominent modern artworks to the period collection including a pair of Shakespearean paintings in one of the staircase halls by American artist Maria Kreyn: Lady M and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Upstairs in the Grand Saloon, afternoon tea with cakes by baker Lily Vanilli is being served.