restricted access A Whiff of Lavender: The Theatre Ghost and the Redevelopment of the Bristol Old Vic
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A Whiff of Lavender:
The Theatre Ghost and the Redevelopment of the Bristol Old Vic

1819: Mr Mcready most respectfully acquaints the ladies and gentlemen of Bristol, and its vicinity, that during the vacation every possible exertion has been made to complete the decorations and embellishments of this theatre, in a style worthy the inhabitants of a city second only to the metropolis of the nation.

(Theatre Royal Playbill)

2011: In March 2011, we started work on a £19.26 million redevelopment project – a scheme that has been promised to the city for almost 20 years. By 2016, when the redevelopment is completed … we will have created a landmark building for Bristol that will welcome audiences from across the country.

(Bristol Old Vic, 2012)

Considering its rich and often troubled histories of religious settlement, shipping industry, slavery and piracy, the city of Bristol is the source of surprisingly few persistent ghost tales.1 One of the few apparitions that have been consistently reported in the city is that of a woman at the eighteenth-century Theatre Royal on King Street, now part of the Bristol Old Vic theatre complex. Anecdotes concerning Sarah, the Theatre Royal’s reported resident female spectre, are well known. Ghost tales about the venue feature on city tourist and ghost walks. Anecdotal accounts of the spectre recur in nineteenth and twentieth century publications about Bristolian and British hauntings. Many guidebooks to Bristol and the South West reference tales of the ghost in their entries on King Street and the theatre. The theatre [End Page 156] is also frequently listed on contemporary paranormal activity websites and houses night vigils from local paranormal investigation groups. Journalists deployed to write about the venue invariably produce articles that contain at least one reference to its reported spiritual activity.2 The oral tradition of the Theatre Royal’s ghost is also strong amongst the venue’s employees, audiences and visiting performers. “There are several players living today who swear they have seen backstage the ghost of Sarah Siddons” at the Theatre Royal, noted John Wickham in Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review in 1965 (31). In a 2012 interview with The Independent newspaper the actress Samantha Bond recalled her time as a student at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the early 1980s. During the dress rehearsal for her final degree show, staged at the Theatre Royal, Bond recalled:

I was sure I had seen a figure in one of the boxes. I then bumped in to a fellow student in a silken dress. When I turned my head to apologise, the fellow student simply wasn’t there! Was it the ghost of Sarah Siddons? I hope so! I still hope so.

(Cripps 11)

The enduring tale of a ghostly female figure that is recounted across these different forms draws on a strong connection between theatres and ghost stories. As Peggy Phelan has argued, “theatre has a long romance with ghosts”, with the “theatricality of spiritualism, parapsychology and other ghostly (pseudo) sciences ow[ing] something to theatre’s conviction that it can make manifest what cannot be seen” (2). The significant number of ghost stories that circulate amidst staff and audiences in the wider theatre industry strengthens this association. Just over ten miles down the A4 from the Bristol Old Vic, at the Theatre Royal Bath, tales of a similar ghostly lady and a spectral tortoiseshell butterfly are recounted with conviction by the venue’s current staff and audiences. They are a key feature of both formal and informal tours of the theatre. London tourist walks around Covent Garden and the West End foreground the ghost stories connected to the area’s theatres, recounting tales that include the presence of a Man in Grey and Joseph Grimaldi at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Joseph Buckstone at the Haymarket Theatre. Indeed it is unusual to explore the history of a British theatrical venue without coming across a ghost tale of sorts.

The majority of theatre ghost stories feature well known theatrical figures or events. They are framed in the structural and narrative conventions of traditional story-telling and folklore, leading to an assumption that the connection between the...