UK – London – Criterion Theatre

Dates: 1874 – present
Address: Piccadilly Circus, W.1

Auditorium designed by Thomas Verity in 1874

Official website: https://www.criterion-theatre.co.uk

593 seats on 3 levels

1970s – Managed by Donald Albery, son of Sir Bronson Albery and grandson of actress Mary Moore.

1980s/90s – Bought by Sally Greene, and refurbished

History (from 1970s programme)

From The Theatres of London by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, 1963

Capacity: 660
Opened: 21 March 1874 with ‘An American Lady’, a comedy by Henry J. Byron, preceded by Topsy-Turveydom, a musical extravaganza in one act by W.S.Gilbert. Under the management of Henry J. Byron

The Building:
In 1873 a large restaurant (The Criterion) was built by Spiers and Pond in what was then Regent Circus, Piccadilly. The entire block costing some £100,000 occupied the site of the White Bear, an old posting inn which had stood there from at least 1685, and some other adjoining property. The ground stretching back to Jermyn Street, almost covering the whole area between the Haymarket and Lower Regent Street, was taken on lease from the Crown Commissioners.
In the middle of the building it was originally intended to build a small concert hall constructed as a square galleried room. It was not until the carcase of the building was finished that they decided to convert this part of it into a theatre. Designed by Thomas Verity, it was to be entirely underground and even the upper circle had to be reached by descending stairs.
Underground theatres are now prohibited by the regulations of the L.C.C., but in 1874 this idea was considered a great novelty: “an underground Temple of the Drama into whiteh it was necessary to pump air to save the audience from being asphyxiated.”
After difficulties in obtaining a licence were fully overcome the theatre was let by the owners to a William Duck on a long lease for £50 a week. Its original manager was Henry J. Byron.
In March 1883 the theatre was closed by order of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Charles Wyndham was then the lessee and manager. It was reconstructed and reopened in 1884. Dramatic Notes says: “The Criterion Theatre, transformed from a stuffy band-box to a convenient, handsome, and well-ventilated house, reopened on April 16.”
Amongst the improvements was the addition of electricity. The original architect, Thomas Verity, supervised the alterations.
The Era, April 19, elaborates:

The principal improvements may be described as follows – A large area open from the basement to the sky has been formed on one side of the theatre by cutting off a considerable portion of the adjoining Criterion Restaurant, thus giving direct light and air to all parts of the house. As an instance of the efficiency of this new area it may be mentioned that the mornign sunshine streams into the pit. Spacious new corridors have been constructed the whole length of the Piccadilly frontage on the stalls, dress circle, and gallery levels, providing direct light and ventilation to these parts. These corridors lead on one side to a commodious crush room and to the new Piccadilly exit, and on the other side to the box-office entrance. In addition to this there are the former exits into Jermyn Street, so that every part of the house is abundantly provided on all sides with exits into two distinct thoroughfares. The auditorium has bbeen in a great measure reconstructed…. The stage is entirely refitted with all modern improvements, and the old dressing rooms have been demolished and new ones built in Jermyn Street. The tile work and wall decorations by Simpson and Sons, and the structural work has been most admirably carried out by the well known contractor Mr Wm Webster, of Trafalgar Square.

A further remodelling and redecoration took place in 1902-3, when the theatre was closed for some seven months. Happily this little theatre, consisting of only Stalls, Dress Circle and Upper Circle, still manages today to retain much of its 1884 atmosphere and tile decoration. Only its main entrance and vestibule are on ground level in Piccadilly Circus. The frontage is the facade of the Criterion Restaurant.

Selected Productions

  • Amelie (20 May 2021 – ?)
  • The Comedy About A Bank Robbery (From March 2016. Closed from 16 March 2020 due to Covid-19 pandemic)
  • The 39 Steps (September 2006 – September 2015)
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (March 1996 – April 2005) The Reduced Shakespeare Company. Also The Complete History of America (abridged) once a week. 
  • Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club (13 December 1995 – )
  • Taking Sides ( – 9 December 1995) starring Daniel Massey and Michael Pennington. Written by Ronald Harwood, directed by Harold Pinter. 
  • My Night With Reg (November 15 1994 to May 13 1995) by Kevin Elyot. Starring John Sessions, David Bamber, Anthony Calf, Joe Duttine, Roger Frost, Kenneth Macdonald
  • The Flying Karamazov Brothers (1994) 7 weeks prior to Broadway
  • Maxwell: The Musical Review (Never opened. Was due to be in previews from 11 February 1994, opening on 21 February 1994) The show was banned 2 weeks before opening (a few days before first previews) by a High Court injunction as the satirical content about the life of newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell might prejudice forthcoming court cases involving his sons. The musical was to feature adapted Gilbert & Sullivan songs.) 
  • Looking Through A Glass Onion: John Lennon in Words and Music  (Previews October 11 1993, opened October 18 1993. Closed 1 January 1994) starring, written & directed by John Waters
  • Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens (From June 17 1993. Closed July 24 1993) starring Kim Criswell, Lily Savage, Simon Fanshawe. Regina Fong was in Lily Savage’s role in July 1993.
  • Misery (previews from 10 December 1992, opens 17 December 1992, closed 15 May 1993) starring Sharon Gless, Bill Paterson. Written & Directed by Simon Moore. Later cast was Julie T Wallace and Nigel Le Vaillant (in April 1993)
  • Making It Better (21 October 1992 – 5 December 1992) starring Jane Asher, David De Keyser, Larry Lamb, Rufus Sewell, production from the Hampstead Theatre
  • 21st October 1992 – Refurbished theatre reopens
  • 1989 – 1992: Renovation to front of house & backstage areas, costing £500,000. Owner Sally Green (lease for 55 years). New Dress Circle Bar. Auditorium remains original design with improved air conditioning.
    Architect: Alain Bouvier
    Designer of refurbishment: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. 
  • Run for Your Wife (1983 – ?April 1989) written and directed by Ray Cooney
  • Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! (1981 – 1983) by Dario Fo
  • Tom Foolery (1980 – 1981)
  • Butley (running 27 July 1971) starring Alan Bates
  • After Haggerty (running 3 June 1971, over 100 perfs) RSC production
  • The High Bid (running 2 Jan 1971) by Henry James, starring Eartha Kitt, Hugh Manning, Gary Watson
  • The Wild Duck (to Dec 19 1970) starring Michael Denison & Dulcie Gray, Alfred Lynch, Norman Wooland, Hayley Mills
  • Council of Love (running October 1970) starring Warren Mitchell, Lally Bowers, Peter Bayliss
  • The Waltz of the Toreodors (1956) starring Hugh Griffith & Beatrix Lehmann.
  • Waiting for Godot (12 September 1955 – ?running March 9 1956, closed ?August 1956) directed by Sir Peter Hall, setting by Peter Snow. Cast: Peter Woodthorpe, Richard Dare, Timothy Bateson, Peter Bull and Michael Walker. Transferred from the Arts Theatre. Production transferred to Manchester in August 1956.
  • Traveller’s Joy (1948) starring Yvonne Arnaud, Charles Victor
  • You Never Can Tell ( – May 31 1948) transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre on May 31 1948
  • Wartime – the theatre was used as a BBC studio for the recording & live broadcast of live entertainment shows.
  • French Without Tears (1936) ran for 1039 performances
  • Fresh Fields (5 January 1933 – ) by Ivor Novello. Starring Lilian Braithwaite, Ellis Jeffreys, Kay Hammond
  • Musical Chairs (31 March 1932 – 31 December 1932) Starring John Gielgud, after a short run at the Arts Theatre
  • Flat to Let (1931 – 19 March 1932)
  • 1902 – Spoon-back seats purpose-designed for the auditorium
  • 1883 – Closed for improvement works required by the Metropolitan Board of Works, installing electricity and a direct ventilation shaft
  • 1874 opened

Equipment

No scenery flying possible due to underground location. 

1971 (from The Stage Guide)
Electrics: Strand 60 way LP in stalls box SL. Dimmers – 60 x 2.5kW; 3 presets. Socket type – 15A BESA. Total capacity available – 147kW. Special effects supply – 10A on 3 phases. No follow spots. No footlights. 
Sound: No permanent installation. Equipment available for hire. 

Links to information about equipment at Criterion Theatre, London over the years

  • LP / System LP (Luminous Preset) (Strand)
  • Documents


    Criterion Theatre - Arthur Lloyd 
    [External Website]
    From Arthur Lloyd website

    Location


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