The Lyric Theatre is a West End theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in the City of Westminster. Designed by the architect C. J. Phipps, it was built by the producer Henry Leslie with profits from the Alfred Cellier and B. C. Stephenson hit, Dorothy (he made £100,000 from this opera), which he transferred from the Prince of Wales Theatre to open his new venue on 17 December 1888. It was the second theatre to be constructed on this stretch of Shaftesbury Avenue and is now the oldest in the street. The foyer and bars were refurbished in 1932–33, and the facade was restored in 1994. At present it seats 915 on four levels, although originally it was designed with a seating capacity of 1,306.
Early in the theatre's history, it staged mostly comic operas, and later it has been a home to light comedies, musicals and straight dramas. The theatre retains many of its original features (including being built behind an original 1767 house front, at the rear to Great Windmill Street, the former house and museum of Sir William Hunter) and the theatre was Grade II listed by English Heritage in September 1960.
The Lyric Theatre still uses water to operate its iron curtain. Water was originally pumped from the river Thames to West End theatres and hotels and used to hydraulically operate heavy machinery like lifts. Hydraulic pressure is now provided by electric pump, but it can also be operated manually by two people. The Lyric Theatre has been owned by Nimax Theatres since 2005 when Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer purchased it from the Really Useful Group (establishing the new Nimax group with the Apollo Theatre, Garrick Theatre and Duchess Theatre).
The Lyric Theatre opened on the 17th of December 1888 with a Comic Opera called 'Dorothy' by B.C. Stephenson. This production had originally opened at the first Gaiety Theatre, then transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre, where it achieved 817 performances, before transferring to the Lyric for this new Theatre's opening. The Lyric was the second Theatre to be built fronted onto the newly constructed Shaftesbury Avenue, the first was the original Shaftesbury Theatre which opened two months earlier in October 1888.
However, the London Pavilion which opened in 1885 can really lay claim to being the true first Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue because a large bulk of the building runs along it, however, although it had entrances on that street, its main entrance was on Piccadilly Circus.
The Lyric Theatre forms part of a block which includes the Apollo Theatre and the Windmill Theatre, but the Lyric takes up most of the frontage of the block. The Lyric's stage door and dressing rooms are on Great Windmill Street, next to the Windmill's main entrance, and it used to have a Gallery entrance on Archer Street at the back of the Theatre. The Lyric is now one of four Theatres in a row on Shaftesbury Avenue; the others being the Apollo, Gielgud, and Queens.
The Lyric Theatre was designed by the well known Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps and built for Henry J. Leslie by Messrs Stephens and Bastow. Henry Leslie financed the building of his new Theatre from the profits of 'Dorothy' from which he apparently made the huge sum, at the time, of £100,000. The Theatre's Freehold is today owned by the Theatres Trust.
The Lyric Theatre's Windmill Street Facade is interesting in that it is actually the remains of a house which once stood there. The house was built in 1766 by Dr William Hunter, who was an anatomist, partly as a home and partly as an anatomical theatre and museum. Internally the house was gutted to make way for the Lyric's dressing rooms but externally it is still much in its original form. The rear of the house was demolished so that the Lyric's stage could be built on the site. On the Windmill Street Facade today there is a Blue Plaque to commemorate the original building.
The Lyric Theatre's partly cantilevered auditorium was built on four levels, Stalls and Pit, Dress Circle, Upper Circle, and Gallery, and had a capacity on opening of 1,306. Today the Gallery is called the Balcony and the Theatre seats a more modest 967. The stage at the Lyric was large for a playhouse with a width of 29' 6" and depth of 36'.
The Theatre is unusual in that it still uses water to operate its iron curtain. Originally this was pumped from the Thames to most of the Theatres and Hotels around London's West End, and used to hydraulically operate lifts and all manor of heavy machinery. Today the Lyric's Iron Curtain is operated via an electric pump but can also be operated manually by two people at a time, though it's a very labour intensive job, and slow too. The Lyric was equipped with five hydraulic bridges in its stage shortly after it was built, more information on these can be found below, however these were later removed and a large revolve was installed instead, which is still operable today, either by a huge and ancient electric rectifier or by hand.
Shortly after the Lyric Theatre was opened a set of five bridges were installed in its stage, operated by hydraulic rams, rather like those still in place at the Theatre royal, Drury Lane. Today they are long gone but Edwin O Sachs reported on them in his 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres', published between 1896 and 1898 saying:- 'As regards the installation at the Lyric Theatre London, it consisted of five sets of bridges supported by hydraulic rams and placed towards the rear of the stage proper.
In the illustrations of this installation, Fig. 124 is a section showing the character of the appliances without any regard to the construction of the stage, while Fig. 123 is a corresponding plan showing the position of the bridges with their pipage. The appliances at the Lyric Theatre were the first of their kind, and their construction apparently took some time, for the work was spread over a period of fifteen months. On the other hand, the outlay was comparatively small, for the cost of the five bridges fully installed was only £867. The work of erection, I should add, was carried out after the theatre had been opened. Four of the bridges may be termed bridges proper, for they only rise to stage floor level, but a fifth and larger bridge can be taken 10 feet (3 .04 metres) above this level. The loads for the first four bridges are each calculated at two tons, whilst that of the fifth bridge is three tons.
The stage has only one mezzanine and the height from the cellar floor to stage at curtain line is 17 feet 3 inches (5.25 metres). There are, of course, two rams to each bridge, and for the four front bridges the diameter of the rams is 3-¼ inches (90 millimetres), whilst for the larger one the diameter is 4 inches (100 millimetres). The consumption of water for the rise of any of the front bridges is twelve gallons, whilst twenty-nine gallons are required to raise the large bridge a total height of 27 feet (8.20 metres), or 10 feet (3 metres) above the stage floor level.
The installation should be considered simply in the light of a set of five ordinary hydraulic lifts which chance to have been added to a stage. There is nothing essentially different from similar hoists or elevators elsewhere or anything calling for special comment. And yet this application of water power at the Lyric Theatre, with the view of assisting theatrical effects, marks an important step in the improvement of stage mechanism in this country.'
The Lyric ' installation was the first of its kind in this metropolis. Again reverting to the Drury Lane stage, I take the opportunity of saying that the production of the pantomime of Christmas 1896, marked the first adoption of hydraulic machinery for spectacular effects in one of our largest London theatres. The late Sir Augustus Harris had for many years been considering the advisability of installing hydraulic machinery at the Drury Lane Theatre, and at the Covent Garden Opera House, but had, as the lessee to consider the financial outlay and the time it would occupy to set up the appliances. Shortly before his death, however, he decided to order two large bridges for the first-named establishment. These appliances were primarily intended to facilitate the presentation of a large shipwreck scene. The machinery for these two bridges was ordered from Austria, but unfortunately show lines almost identical with those of the earliest Asphaleia work of 1881, instead of the more recent foreign types mentioned in these pages...
...Each bridge measures 4.0 feet (12.9 metres) by 7 feet 6 inches (2.28 metres) and can be raised to nearly 12 feet (3.65 metres) above stage floor line, whilst the fall under the stage is 9 feet (2.74 metres). The two bridges adjoin one another, and are only divided from each other and from the surrounding floor by flaps (Casettenklappen) which are fixed to the slab of the bridge. The appliances sent from Austria had, by the bye, to be adapted to suit English requirements in respect to hydraulic pressure for though the supply by the hydraulic mains is not more than 700lbs., the valves and cylinders can only stand a much lower pressure, and reducing valves had, therefore, to be introduced. The cylinders, I would here add, have an abnormally large diameter of about 17 inches (0.43 metre) each. As both bridges are used together, it is curious that no system of coupling has been adopted, since the separate regulation of each bridge, even when in competent hands, is a matter of great difficulty, and the rise between the two 'bridges' certainly fluctuates to the extent of a few inches during the movement.
However limited the installation at Drury Lane may be, it is certainly a move in the right direction, and those responsible for the economy of this institution recognise that for pantomime and transformation work a great saving in the wage list should be arrived at by the adoption of modern methods. It is, perhaps, interesting to note that even with two hydraulic bridges at work there are still over 100 men employed in shifting scenery during a production of a pantomime...' The above text in quotes (edited), and its accompanying images, were first published in Edwin O Sachs' 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres', 1896 / 1898. Please click here to view the illustrations.
The author worked at the Lyric Theatre himself from 1975 for 4 years, and the lighting board at that time was one of the early Rank Strand Console Desks (CD). The cabinet was fashioned from an organ and it even had pedals and tabs to operate lighting groups. This CD board was the two preset version which made life much easier as the original version, used at Her Majesty's Theatre at the same time, had organ keys instead of presets. The board at the Lyric also had a speed control which was like a large accelerator on a car. You had to push the pedal harder with your foot to create faster lighting changes. On matinees the electricity supply was always at a lower voltage than in the evenings so that you had to increase the speed to attain the same lighting fade times.
The Console, situated at the back of the Dress Circle, in the bar conveniently, was connected to dimmer racks in the basement under the stage, and these consisted of huge racks of massive dimmers operated by a large motor and clutches. When doing a fast lighting cue you could sometimes hear the motor screaming under the stage from the Stalls. The tabs you can see in the picture above right were used to select which channels you wanted to move in the next lighting change, and groups of these could be selected at once by using stops which were to the right of the Console.
When you pulled the stops out the tabs would jump down and the whole desk would thump and 'ding' like a pinball machine. It could take up to two minutes to set all the faders on the presets for the next cue so that rapid lighting changes were something of a challenge. Nowadays lighting is all done with computers and mostly at the touch of one button, and whilst this is far more efficient and versatile it certainly isn't anything like the adrenaline inducing operation of a Rank Strand Console Desk.
The Lyric's basement areas used to include an area which stretched right up to the underneath of the pavement of Shaftesbury Avenue and housed Crew Rooms, offices and other areas, and above were shops, but the whole section was sold off by the London Residue Body when the GLC was abolished and before the Freehold was given to the Theatre's Trust. This has made further expansion of the Theatre impossible, indeed it now has less space than it used to. Luckily the stage area was not owned by the GLC or that might have gone too when it was abolished.
The Lyric Theatre has been home to a great many successful productions in its time, far too many to list here, but recent successes include 'Blood Brothers' in 1983, which won several awards and, although it only ran for 6 months at the Lyric, went on to tour the country before a new production arrived in the West End at the Albery Theatre, where it was a great success, eventually transferring to the Phoenix where, remarkably, it ran from 1991 until 2012; 'Five Guys Named Mo' in 1990 which ran for five years; 'Cabaret' which was a very popular production in 2006, and 'Thriller Live' which opened in January 2009.
Wheelchair user access is located in the Dress Circle Boxes, which are at street level. Please report to the main entrance on arrival and a member of staff will accompany you to the wheelchair access entrance on Shaftesbury Avenue. Wheelchair spaces are in boxes C, D and E. Boxes can accommodate up to 3 persons.
There is a fully adapted unisex toilet in the Dress Circle. There are Ladies and Gentlemen’s toilets on all levels. The theatre bars are located on all levels. There is no level access to the bars for wheelchair users; a member of theatre staff will offer assistance purchasing beverages on behalf of customers. Programmes and Ice Creams are available in the main foyer and auditorium. They are sorry but there are currently no hearing assistance facilities in this venue.
For information about disabled parking in Westminster please visit www.parkingforbluebadges.com or visit the Q-Park website www.q-park.co.uk/theatreland .
Guide dogs and hearing dogs are welcome. For comfort we recommend purchasing a seat on the end of a row. Alternatively we provide a dog sitting service for 2 dogs at a time; advance booking is recommended. There are 4 stairs from the street to the foyer. To access the auditorium there are 24 stairs to the Stalls, Dress Circle is located off the main foyer, 25 stairs to the Upper Circle and 60 stairs to the Balcony.
Location : Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7ES
Transport: Charing Cross (National Rail) then 12 minutes. Underground: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly Line, Bakerloo Line) then 5 minutes. London Buses routes : 14, 19, 22B, 38, 53, 88, 94 and 159 stop close by.
Access Line : 0330 333 4815
Tel: 0330 333 4812