Criterion Theatre London Celebrates 150 Years

Based in Piccadilly Circus in the heart of London’s West, The Criterion Theatre is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a pioneering scheme to give 150 free tickets each week for eight weeks to 12-21-year-olds to see the production currently playing at the theatre – Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York).

Criterion Theatre London
Criterion Theatre Restored canopy Feb 2024

Sally Greene, Trustee, said: “The Criterion Theatre Trust has been running this gorgeous venue for over thirty years and we are thrilled to be able to continue our work with young people with this exciting offer to mark the Cri’s 150th. I am delighted that 150 young people a week will be able to enjoy the wonderful production of Two Stangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) for the next eight weeks.

The scheme will be offered initially to schools with the administrative support of Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation with whom the theatre already works on its Theatre Skills Workshop programme. It is hoped that the scheme will then be made available more widely.

Fiona Callaghan, Managing Director, said: “The Criterion team is delighted that the Trust is able to make this offer to encourage young people to experience live theatre in our beautiful venue. Working with Coram Shakespeare Schools Festival on material to support their visit, we hope to further inspire and challenge our young audiences.

A gala performance celebrating the theatre’s rich history will be held on 24 June which will serve as a fundraising event to extend the free ticket scheme beyond the initial 8 week offering (22 April – 14 June 2024).

Stephen Fry, Chairman of Trustees, said: “Actors, directors and producers always love playing the Criterion Theatre. The Piccadilly Jewel Box has a uniquely magical atmosphere. From the stage, its auditorium is like a wide smile, and from the auditorium, the stage is close enough for intimacy and a real connection with the actors and the drama being presented. The 150th Anniversary—the Sesquicentenary, if you want the posh word—is a perfect time to celebrate the Cri’s unique place in the West End, and to do so in a way that helps new audiences find this very special London treasure.

The scheme will be targeted at young people who do not ordinarily have the opportunity to visit the theatre. The schools offer will be supported with teacher packs and a curriculum-aligned lesson plan from Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation. For certain performances, there will also be post-show question and answers sessions and tours of the theatre.

The Criterion Theatre Trust is being supported in this offering by the production of Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) offering the Trust subsidised tickets for purchase. “A perfect show for the scheme, Two Strangers follows two twenty-somethings as they navigate dating apps, life & love in an expensive city, and finding your place in the world.” Tim Johanson, Producer.

History of the Criterion Theatre

At the tail end of the 19th century, London was undergoing major changes with slum clearances allowing the development of sewage and power networks, better highways and, as a result, there was a building boom of theatres and live entertainment spaces.

With the creation of Shaftesbury Avenue and the widening of Piccadilly Circus, the Australian caterers Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond acquired the site of the old White Bear coaching inn on the south side of Piccadilly Circus, with the idea of creating an entertainment complex and attached restaurant and bar.

Thomas Verity won a competition, from 15 submissions, to build the Criterion restaurant with a bar and gallery, a large concert hall underneath and a ballroom above. During construction, plans were altered and the concert hall became a smaller, more glamorous theatre. The tile designs on the main access staircase with the names of classical composers still reflect the original intention to create a music venue.

The theatre opened on 21 March 1874 under the management of H J Byron who also wrote and acted in the opening production of An American Lady, presented with a short piece by W S Gilbert called Topsyturvydom.

The theatre was lit by gas which, being entirely underground, meant an air circulation system was required to avoid asphyxiating audiences, making The Criterion one of the earliest air-conditioned buildings in London.

After only a year, the management was taken over by Charles Wyndham who found great success presenting adaptations of French farces with the more risqué elements toned down for British sensibilities. Wyndham’s initials still form part of the auditorium decoration.

Mary Moore first appeared on The Criterion stage in 1886 and soon established herself as Wyndham’s leading lady and in 1916 they were married. Wyndham left to manage his own theatre on St Martin’s Lane in 1899 leaving the management to Mary who remained in charge until her death in 1931 when control of the venue passed to her son, Sir Bronson Albery.

There were alterations at ground floor level in 1905 adding new doors to Piccadilly Circus and the distinctive glass canopy was added to the front of the building in 1908.

With 588 seats over three levels the auditorium made a perfect space for intimate plays and comedies and, over the years, has hosted many great performances and long runs including the farce A Little Bit of Fluff from 1915 to 1918. In the 1920s Sybil Thorndike and Marie Tempest headlined productions and in the following decade John Gielgud and Ivor Novello had successes, and Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears ran for 1039 performances.

During the second world war its underground location made it a perfectly safe recording and broadcasting studio for the BBC radio service. Theatrical performances began again in 1945 when Dame Edith Evans opened in The Rivals. In 1955 Sir Peter Hall directed two avant-garde productions transferred from the Arts Theatre with the original production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Anouilh’s The Waltz of the Toreadors.

The theatre was threatened by destruction in 1958 when plans were announced to redevelop Piccadilly with elevated promenades and shopping malls built over major highways at ground level. The Save London’s Theatres campaign and major protests led by John Gielgud, Edward Woodward, Diana Rigg, Robert Morley and Prunella Scales thankfully put an end to the plans. Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey was playing on stage at the time.

Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head achieved 1043 performances in the 1960s followed by the comedies Loot by Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and a personal triumph for Roy Dotrice with his one-man show Brief Lives.

A rich variety of product was provided through the 1970s including Alan Bates in Simon Gray’s Butley, Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, two seasons of Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, Ian McKellen and Tom Bell in Bent, the Tom Lehrer revue Tomfoolery and Dario Fo’s anarchic comedy Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!

In March 1978 Ian Albery took over the theatre management from his father Sir Donald Albery who, in turn, had previously succeeded his own father.

The Maybox Group acquired the theatre in 1984. 1983 saw the start of another long run with Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife giving in excess of 1600 performances only surpassed by the residencies of The Reduced Shakespeare Company which ran for 9 years from March 1996 and The 39 Steps which also ran for 9 years from September 2005.

The theatre was forced to close in 1989 for three years while the surrounding office block across the whole south side of Piccadilly Circus was developed around it. It re-opened in 1992 when Robert Bourne and Sally Greene acquired the lease and established The Criterion Theatre Trust. The surrounding development by Renton Howard Wood Levin allowed the creation of larger modern front of house and stage facilities and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was appointed as design consultant for the auditorium decoration. The theatre is today still run by the independent charitable trust.

The most recent long runner was Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About a Bank Robbery which opened in 2016, closing with the pandemic forced closure of theatres on the 16th March 2020. The Criterion re-opened post-Covid with the musical Amélie, followed by Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), 2:22 A Ghost Story and The Unfriend.

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