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Address: 218-223 Piccadilly, Piccadilly Circus, London W1V 9LB
Air Conditioning: Yes – since 1884!
Current Owner: The Criterion Theatre Trust
Box Office: +44 (0) 844 815 6131
Discounts, Day seats, Rush tickets & Lotteries
Many of London’s theatres are accessed from below or above street level. If you need to avoid steps, it is advisable to contact the theatre directly by telephone or email as they will be able to advise you on which seats are most easily accessed. Many have specially adapted wheelchair spaces.
Theatres may be able to provide additional facilities for customers with a hearing or visual impairment and some shows may also offer specific, adapted performances. It’s best to check with the venue directly via one of the following methods:
Access Bookings: +44 (0) 20 7839 8811 and ask for Box Office
Society of London Theatre also offers useful information for visitors with a disability or specific access need.
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Buses: 3, 6, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15,19, 22, 23, 38, 88, 94, 139, 159, 453
Check out Transport for London’s excellent TFL Journey Planner
The Criterion Theatre is located at the heart of what is now the world famous Piccadilly Circus, on a site which once housed a 17th century inn, the White Bear. In 1870, Restauranteurs Richard Spiers and Christopher Pond began developing the site – sloping ground stretching between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly Circus known as Regent’s Circus – and a competition was held to design a concert hall complex. Entrepreneur Thomas Verity won out of 15 entries with a commission including a large restaurant, dining rooms and ballroom with a galleried concert hall in the basement.
During the building’s construction, which would include a lavish vestibule, the Criterion restaurant, ‘diner Parisien’ and large banqueting hall as well as numerous other public and private rooms, it was decided that a theatre would be a more suitable choice than a larger concert hall and construction of the Criterion Theatre began. When Spiers and Pond first 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, with fresh air pumped into the auditorium to prevent the audience from being asphyxiated. It was not until October 1881, at the Savoy, that London’s theatres were first electrified and the danger receded.
The theatre’s interior was described by The Theatrical Observer as lavish, with exquisite decorations in the style of Louis XVI. The boxes and balcony were upholstered and gilded in white, light blue and gold with gold satin and white lace curtains. The balconies were supported by slim iron columns which do have some effect on sight-lines although this is often reflected in ticket prices and some of the affected seats offer great value for money. The theatre is almost entirely underground with even the Upper Circle reached by descending stairs from the main entrance. The Criterion’s small stage and subterranean location provide specific challenges for designers and those co-ordinating ‘Get-Ins’ of shows, requiring that all scenery is slid down ramps: something of a nightmare for those poor stage-hands who have to slide it all back up for the ‘Get-Outs’ when a show departs.
The auditorium (Stalls, Dress Circle and Upper Circle) originally seated 675 although today this has been reduced to a little under 600. The theatre’s frontage, which is actually the façade of the Criterion Restaurant, used Portland stone and endures in its original design, considered to be the best surviving example of Verity’s Work. The building was completed in 1873, with interior decoration by Simpson and Son.
The Criterion Theatre opened to the public on 21st March 1874 with a programme including H J Byron’s An American Lady and Topseyturveydom by the W S Gilbert half of Gilbert & Sullivan. The following year, Actor/Manager Charles Wyndham became the theatre’s manager and lessee. Wyndham would stay for nearly a quarter of a century and under his management the Criterion became one of the leading light comedy houses in London. The first production under Wyndham was The Great Divorce Case, which opened on 15th April 1876.
In 1882 the Prince and Princess of Wales (who would become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) attended a performance of Fourteen Days in March but just a year later the theatre was forced to close after the Metropolitan Board of Works deemed its gas-lighting and poor ventilation to still pose a significant safety risk to both the audience and building.
In March 1883, the theatre closed to carry out the alterations demanded by the Metropolitan Board of Works. Thomas Verity (who had by now also designed the Comedy (now the Harold Pinter Theatre) and Empire Theatres) supervised the alterations and when the theatre re-opened in 1884, it was brought into the modern age with electric lighting, a skylight and even air-conditioning offering an entirely new level of sophistication. New corridors, exits and dressing rooms greatly improved the theatre for audiences and performers alike as well as offering the required (and vastly improved) levels of ventilation and safety.
In 1888, Wyndham took to the Criterion stage himself, with a run of 152 performances as famous thespian David Garrick. Later, in the 1890s, the area immediately in front of the theatre was transformed into what we know today with the installation of the world-famous bronze sculpture of Anteros (known simply as ‘Eros’) on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain.
In 1899, Wyndham departed to establish the nearby Wyndham’s Theatre, swiftly followed by the New Theatre (later named the Albery and now the Noël Coward Theatre). Despite his departure, Wyndham remained the lessee of the Criterion and continued to bring in various managements and companies to the Criterion before, in 1902-03 and at the dawn of the new Edwardian age, the theatre closed for seven months for further renovations.
In 1906, the nearby Piccadilly tube station opened to the travelling public, introducing the now familiar low-rumble of trains passing every few minutes, to each and every production. Later, during the First World War, playwright Walter W Ellis helped keep morale up, bringing A Little Bit of Fluff to the Criterion for a 1,241 performance run.
Between the wars, in the 1920s the Piccadilly area quickly grew into a party-zone, emblemised in 1926 by the installation of the now-famous electric billboards on the London Pavilion opposite. In the 1930s, the Criterion hosted productions including Musical Chairs with John Gielgud and a three-year run of Terence Rattigan’s West End debut French Without Tears.
The theatre remained dark for the duration of World War II, instead performing a key role as a subterranean BBC radio studio. Safe from the Blitz, it made an ideal radio studio, recording light entertainment programmes, many of which were broadcast live, offering war-weary British audiences a much needed boost to morale.
After the war, the Criterion played home to avant-garde works including Samuel Beckett’s iconic, absurdist Waiting for Godot and then, in 1956, Jean Anouilh’s popular comedy, The Waltz of the Toreadors.
The swinging sixties saw a series of classic productions, including kitchen sink dramas such as Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache and an adaptation of A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch which notched up over 1,000 performances and in 1966, the controversial Joe Orton camp classic, Loot won the Evening Standard Play of the Year award.
In the 1970s, much of the West End, including the site of the Criterion, faced the existential threat of redevelopment by the Greater London Council. The British Theatre community, including the likes of John Gielgud, Diana Rigg, Warren Mitchell and Prunella Scales came together under the banner of the Equity Save London’s Theatres committee, campaigning to save theatres like The Criterion – a campaign which was, thankfully, successful.
The decade following this reprieve saw Dario Fo’s farce Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! brought to life on the Criterion stage, starring Alfred Molina, followed by another hugely successful farce, Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife with Bernard Cribbins, Ernie Wise and Una Stubbs. The show ran for six years.
At the end of the 1980s, the theatre building was purchased by property tycoon and patron of the arts Robert Bourne and theatre impresario Sally Greene. The couple set up the Criterion Theatre Trust, a registered charity created to protect the Criterion’s future. Between 1989 and 1992, the Trust oversaw a complete restoration of the auditorium and front of house, led by Greene herself, who raised the money needed to completely restore this 150-year-old historical building on Piccadilly Circus.
When it reopened in 1993 critics called The Criterion “the jewel in the crown of theatres”, dubbing it “the prettiest theatre in London”. Sir John Gielgud and Richard Briers reopened it with a Kenneth Branagh short film entitled Swansong which earned an Oscar nomination.
In 1996 the Reduced Shakespeare Company began a nearly ten-year residency with their hugely popular comic versions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Complete History of America (Abridged) and Complete Word of God (Abridged). The final performances by the Reduced Shakespeare Company came in April 2005, making way for Yael Farber’s Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise which featured real-life stories of black South Africans growing up under apartheid. Later that same year, Gregory Murphy’s The Countess, though popular on Broadway, closed after a run of just 40 performances before more successful revivals of What The Butler Saw and Otherwise Engaged (starring Richard E Grant and Anthony Head).
In 2006, Jerry Herman’s musical Mack and Mabel transferred from the Watermill Theatre in Berkshire, featuring actors also playing instruments. Herman himself described the production as “The definitive Mack and Mabel”. Sadly, the production which starred David Soul and Janie Dee in the title roles, closed after just three months.
In September 2006 the Alfred Hitchcock-inspired comic adaptation of The 39 Steps arrived following a sell-out season at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. The show would run for almost nine years.
In September 2010, Stephen Fry was appointed as the new Chairman of the Criterion Trust, announcing that he was “insanely excited and honoured” to take up his new position. Fry’s arrival coincided with Criterion Presents, an ancillary programme of shows, events and platforms running alongside main productions.
In October 2015 the Burt Bacharach musical, Close To You: Burt Bacharach Reimagined, transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory for a four-and-a-half month run and in 2016 the theatre welcomed another long-running success, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. The show was due to run until 3rd May 2020 but closed early due to the Coronavirus pandemic which forced the closure of all West End Theatres.
The Criterion is occasionally used by leading drama institutions as a venue for their graduating students’ annual showcases and remains one of the most important surviving mid-Victorian theatres in Britain, along with the Old Vic, Royal Opera House, Theatre Royal Margate and Tyne Theatre & Opera House.
- The Comedy About a Bank Robbery
- Nina Conti: In Your Face
- Close To You, Bacharach Reimagined
- The 39 Steps
- Mack & Mabel
- Otherwise Engaged
- What The Butler Saw
- The Gruffalo
- The Countess
- Amajuba – Like Doves We Rise
- The Reduced Shakespeare Company (The Complete Word of God (Abridged))
- The Reduced Shakespeare Company (The Complete History of America (Abridged))
- The Reduced Shakespeare Company (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged))
Disclaimer: We take care to provide accurate information. Records prior to internet age can be difficult to verify so we only list productions back as far as the year 2000, however we hold some records prior to this date offline. If you would like more information, or are aware of any errors, please contact us here. “One night only” productions and private theatre hires are not listed.
Arthur Lloyd’s Theatre Website offers an encyclopaedic insight into the history of the West End’s theatres.
Theatricalia is a database of past & future theatre productions.
Thisistheatre also offers interesting insights into the history of London’s theatres.
The Theatres Trust offers information and support for our nation’s theatres.