The Criterion Theatre is a West End theatre at Piccadilly Circus in the City of Westminster, and is a Grade II* listed building. It has a seating capacity of 588.
In 1870, the caterers Spiers and Pond began development of the site of the White Bear, a seventeenth-century posting inn. The inn was located on sloping ground stretching between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly Circus, known as Regent Circus. A competition was held for the design of a concert hall complex, with Thomas Verity winning out of 15 entries. He was commissioned to design a large restaurant, dining rooms, ballroom, and galleried concert hall in the basement. The frontage, which was the façade of the restaurant, showed a French Renaissance influence using Portland stone.
After the building work began, it was decided to change the concert hall into a theatre. The composers' names, which line the tiled staircases, were retained and can still be seen. The redesign placed the large Criterion Restaurant and dining rooms above the theatre, with a ballroom on the top floor. When Spiers and Pond applied for a licence to operate, the authorities were unhappy because the theatre was underground and lit by gas, creating the risk of toxic fumes. The Metropolitan Board of Works had to vote twice before the necessary licence was issued, and fresh air had to be pumped into the auditorium to prevent the audience from being asphyxiated. It was not until October 1881, at the Savoy, that the first theatre was lit electrically. The building was completed in 1873 with the interior decoration carried out by Simpson and Son.
The first production opened on 21 March 1874 under the management of Henry J. Byron & EP Hingston. The programme consisted of An American Lady written and performed by Byron and a piece by W. S. Gilbert, with music by Alfred Cellier, entitled Topsyturveydom. The event apparently did not make much of an impression on Gilbert. In a 1903 letter to Thomas Edgar Pemberton, author of the book on The Criterion, Gilbert wrote: "I am sorry to say that in my mind is an absolute blank to the opening of The Criterion. I never saw Topseyturveydom. If you happen to have a copy of it and could lend it to me for a few hours it might suggest some reminiscences: as it is I don't even know what the piece was about!"
Gilbert had, however, been back at the theatre in 1877 with his farce, On Bail (a revised version of his 1874 work, Committed for Trial); in 1881, with another farce, Foggerty's Fairy; and in 1892, with a comic opera, Haste to the Wedding, with music by George Grossmith (an operatic version of Gilbert's 1873 play, The Wedding March). Haste to the Wedding was a flop, but it introduced the 18-year-old George Grossmith, Jr., the composer's son, to the London stage. The younger Grossmith would go on to become a major star in Edwardian musical comedies.
The Theatrical Observer reported on the opening of the Criterion Theatre in their March 25th, 1874 edition saying:- 'It is almost impossible to give the reader an idea of the lavish and exquisite decorations that pervade the interior of certainly the most elegant theatre in the metropolis. The period taken as the model of taste is that of Louis Seize - the purest and finest in the annals of French history.
The decorations of the fronts of the boxes and balcony, are the work of the upholsterer and gilder, rather than of the scenic artist - white, light blue, and gold, with gold-coloured satin curtains, subdued by the folds of white lace; the chairs in the stalls are admirably in keeping with the whole design - they are true to the period - the backs form an oval covered with blue satin, with a pure flatted white framework, edged with a Louis-Seize gold border; the seats, which are quite luxurious are similarly covered...
The front of the balcony is gracefully shaped - so formed indeed that the decorator's art has full scope for its display. No one can enter the theatre without being struck with its solid magnificence - without being compelled to acknowledge the elegant and true taste of its designer. Mr. Verity has constructed a temple which shall be a lasting testimony to his architectural ability; and we sincerely congratulate him upon having not only designed a most elegant edifice, but a most commodious, comfortable well ventilated, and convenient one. The management has been entrusted to Mr. H. J. Byron, from whose ability everything may be expected; Mr. Hingston, one of the most clever and popular managers, of the day, superintends the managerial business department; and Mr. Barker is invested with the stage-management...
The theatre opened its doors for the first performance on Saturday evening, when two new pieces were produced; the first a comedy from the pen of Mr. Henry Byron; the other a musical extravaganza by Mr. Gilbert. Of the first named, which is called "An American Lady," it will give the clearest idea of it, if we say that it is constructed on the model of Mr. Byron's former comedies - not that it is in any degree copied from any one of them, but it is the same in style, in purpose, in effect. He plays the principal character in it himself, a soft, listless, purposeless man, who though not quite an idiot, yet requiring, as he tells the American lady, somebody as a matromonial partner who can supply the brains and he will contribute the devotion. The dialogue is written with an off-hand sort of ability - an ability that goes far to show that we have not yet seen the exact amount of it. The principal character was played by Mrs. Wood - doubtlessly written for her - with great force and fidelity, and with an unlimited amount of spirit and verve. The other parts were well filled by Mr. Fisher (a rather noisy sort of baronet,) Mr. Barnes, Mr. Clarke, Miss Rignold, and Miss Hughes. "Topsyturveydom " discovered some very good music by Mr. Collier - very taking in some parts; those which he had contributed himself, especially; the selections were well arranged, and, performed by a good orchestra, such as he has at his command - one that has been carefully selected, being chiefly composed of stringed instruments - the musical part could not fail to be satisfactory Miss Holland sang a song very nicely.'
Charles Wyndham became the manager and lessee in 1875, and under his management the Criterion became one of the leading light comedy houses in London. The first production under the manager was The Great Divorce Case, opening on 15 April 1876. When Wyndham left in 1899 to open his own theatre, The Wyndham's Theatre (and then the New Theatre, now called the Noël Coward Theatre, in 1903) he remained the lessee bringing in various managements and their companies.
In March 1883 the theatre closed for alterations demanded by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The pumping of fresh air into the ten-year-old auditorium, some thirty feet below street level, was deemed unsatisfactory. Thomas Verity supervised the alterations (Verity by now had also designed the Comedy Theatre in 1881 and the Empire Theatre in 1882). The new direct access ventilation shaft meant cutting off a considerable portion of the adjoining Criterion Restaurant. New corridors were built, with several new exits. The auditorium was reconstructed and the stage re-equipped. The old dressing rooms were demolished and new ones built. Most importantly, electricity was installed. Dramatic Notes (1884) states "The Criterion Theatre, transformed from a stuffy band-box to a convenient, handsome, and well ventilated house, reopened on April 16". Further alterations and redecorations took place in 1902–03, when the theatre was closed for seven months.
Shortly after the Criterion Theatre reopened the ERA printed a review of the building in their April 19th 1884 edition which said:- '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 morning 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 been 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.'
Between the world wars productions included Musical Chairs with John Gielgud and in 1936, French Without Tears which ran for 1,039 performances and launched the writing career of Terence Rattigan. During World War II, the Criterion was requisitioned by the BBC – as an underground theatre it made an ideal studio safe from the London blitz – and light entertainment programmes were both recorded and broadcast live.
After the war, the Criterion repertoire included avant-garde works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The early part of 1956 saw the arrival of Anouilh's popular comedy, The Waltz of the Toreadors, with impressive performances by Hugh Griffith and Beatrix Lehmann.
In the 1970s the Criterion site was proposed for redevelopment, which caused protest, as people feared the theatre would be lost. In February 1975 the GLC Planning Committee approved the development on the condition that the theatre continued in "full, continuous and uninterrupted use" while the redevelopments took place. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the argument increased, and the Equity Save London's Theatre Committee organised high-profile demonstrations (campaigners included John Gielgud, Edward Woodward, Diana Rigg, Robert Morley and Prunella Scales) as they feared that the theatre would still be lost.
In the 1980s, the theatre building was purchased by Robert Bourne, a property tycoon and patron of the arts, and his wife, theatre impresario Sally Greene. The couple set up the Criterion Theatre Trust, a registered charity created to protect the Criterion's future. From 1989 to 1992 the theatre was renovated both in the back and front of the house. During that time, the block that exists today was built around it. After the refurbishment, the Criterion retains a well-preserved Victorian auditorium with an intimate atmosphere. Major productions in the last two decades of the century included Tom Foolery (1980–1981), Can't Pay? Won't Pay! (1981–1983), and the long-running Run for Your Wife (1983–1989).
From 1996 to 2005, the theatre was home to productions of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, notably The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The theatre hosted the first round of recalls for successful auditionees in ITV's Pop Idol. The theatre is also used by leading drama institutions as a venue for their graduating students' annual showcases.
From 2006 to 2015, the Criterion hosted the long-running melodrama The 39 Steps, adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan's 1915 novel, which was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. Peppa Pig's Party transferred to the Criterion Theatre for the 2010 Christmas period to play alongside The 39 Steps and returned for the following 4 Christmas periods up to 2014.
Criterion Presents, launched in October 2011, is an ancillary programme of shows, events and platforms that run alongside the main production, taking place at lunchtimes, early evenings and late nights.
Tickets for patrons with access needs can be booked directly with the Criterion Theatre Box Office, either in person or by calling 020 7839 8811 and requesting to speak to the Box Office. Patrons with access needs can also email the box office directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wheelchairs. There are two wheelchair spaces in the back row of the Upper Circle. Wheelchair access is through the step free entrance beside the Stage Door in Jermyn Street, behind the theatre. Toilets. Male and Female toilets are located on the far side of the auditorium between the Stalls and Dress Circle levels.
Guide Dogs. Assistance dogs are not allowed into the auditorium but theatre staff are able to look after up to two dogs per performance in the Theatre Manager’s office. They also provide occasional audio described performances - please contact the Box Office for dates and more information on 020 7839 8811.
For further information please contact the Theatre Manager on 020 7839 8811.If you require any assistance during your visit to the Criterion Theatre please contact the Duty Manager.
Auditorium. The auditorium of the Criterion Theatre is located below street level. There are 54 stairs down to the Stalls level, 32 stairs down to the Dress Circle level, and 23 stairs to the Upper Circle. Unfortunately there is no lift in the theatre, although step free access is possible to the Upper Circle level upon request.
Hearing. There is an induction loop system in the foyer for the Box Office and a Sennheiser infra-red hearing system in all parts of the auditorium. Headsets are available for patrons from the Cloakroom.
Accessible Toilet. There is one accessible toilet on the Upper Circle, with step free access from Jermyn Street upon request. The Greene Bar (stalls level) and Lord Attenborough Bar (Dress Circle) are only accessible via stairs. Drinks can be brought to customers in the auditorium. Drinks may be taken inside the auditorium in plastic cups.
Click here to download access information PDF
Latecomers. For the current production of ‘The Comedy About A Bank Robbery’ they will admit latecomers at a specific point of Act 1, approximately seven minutes into the performance. They cannot guarantee admittance to latecomers who arrive after that time, you may be asked to wait until the interval or taken to alternative seats at the back of the auditorium, if they are available, to avoid disturbing other patrons.
If you’re driving into the West End to see a show, take advantage of Q-Park's Theatreland Parking Scheme saving 50% off off-street car parking charges for up to 24 hours. To qualify, simply present your Q-Park car park ticket for validation at the theatre and the car park machine will automatically charge you half price. Our nearest Q-Park car park is Trafalgar Square and the next nearest is Chinatown. Please note Leicester Square, Whitcomb Street is not currently part of this scheme.
The venue box office is open from 10 am Tuesday to Saturday and 11.30 am on Sundays, closes half an hour after the performance start time. PLEASE NOTE THEY ARE CLOSED TO PERSONAL CALLERS ON MONDAYS. The telephone booking line is open Monday to Sunday 9 am to 9 pm. Online booking is available 24 hours.
Location : Foyer Entrance: 218-223 Piccadilly, Piccadilly Circus, London. W1V 9LB
Transport: Charing Cross (National Rail) then 6 minutes. Underground : Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly Line, Bakerloo Line) 1 minute. London Buses routes : 3, 6, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15,19, 22, 23, 38, 88, 94, 139, 159 and 453 stop close by.
Access Line : 020 7839 8811
Tel: 0844 815 6131