The Criterion Theatre is situated in the heart of Piccadilly Circus right opposite the famous Statue of Eros. It has been the home of ‘The 39 Steps’ since 2006, which is known for its creative use of minimal cast and props.
History and Opening
The Criterion Theatre was built on the site of the White Bear, a 17th Century posting inn on the corner of Piccadilly Circus. The inn was demolished and the site was empty for years, until the caterers Spiers and Pond decided to build a concert hall complex. In 1870 they held a competition for the design of the complex which was to include a restaurant, a ballroom, and a huge concert hall in the basement. The architect Thomas Verity won the competition and designed a beautiful French Renaissance style building in Portland stone.
However, during the building work the concert hall in the basement was turned into a theatre. This caused huge safety problems; the venue is almost entirely underground and had no ventilation. The Metropolitan Board of Works demanded that the auditorium was pumped full of fresh air before it would grant a license. The theatre finally opened on 21st March 1874, and in 1884 electric lights and air-conditioning were installed.
Performances and events
The 1870s - The theatre’s opening performance was with a double bill; the comedy An American Lady’ by H.J.Byrons and ‘Topseyturveydom’ by W.S.Gilbert, one half of the light-operatic duo Gilbert and Sullivan.
The 1930s - In 1932 the legendary actor John Gielgud trod the boards in ‘Musical Chairs’; he became so successful that the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was named after him. The Playwright Terence Rattigan launched his career at the Criterion with West End smash ‘French Without Tears’, which ran for 3 years.
The 1940s - During World War II the Criterion Theatre became a subterranean radio station for the BBC. Several other West End theatres were taken over to help the war effort, many of them to show entertainment for the military.
The 1960s - As London swings into the sixties the Harold Pinter production ‘A Slight Ache’ was performed by stars including Emlyn Williams, Richard Briers and Wendy Craig. Joe Orton’s play ‘Loot’, starring Michael Bates and Kenneth Cranham, became the Evening Standard’s Play of the Year.
The 1970s - Threatened ‘redevelopment’ of the Criterion by the Greater London Council in 1972 brought protestors to the streets. Familiar stars including John Gielgud, Diana Rigg and Warren Mitchell were among others to save the theatre.
The 1980s - Six whole years of “farce” in 1983 brought Run For Your Wife starring Bernard Cribbins, Patrick Mower, Ernie Wise, Aimi Macdonald and Una Stubbs.
The 1990s - The Criterion Theatre Trust was born and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen refurbishes the auditorium and front of house.
The present day - Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense drama ‘The 39 Steps’ has been running at the Criterion Theatre since 2006.