Next Show: Hairspray
First preview: 18th May 2021
Booking until: 28th August 2021
Running time: Awaiting information
Address: St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES
Air Conditioning: No
Current Owner: English National Opera
Box Office: +44 (0) 20 7845 9300
Discounts, Day seats, Rush tickets & Lotteries
Box Office: +44 (0) 20 7845 9300
Stage Door: +44 (0) 20 7845 9397
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: Call +44 (0) 20 7845 9300
Society of London Theatre also offers useful information for visitors with a disability or specific access need.
Nearest Tube: Charing Cross or Leicester Square
Buses: Number 3, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 23, 24, 29, 53, 88, 91, 139, 159, 176
Check out Transport for London’s excellent TFL Journey Planner
Luxury: St Martin’s Lane Hotel, 45 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4HX
Mid: Page8 Hotel 7 – 8 Saint Martin’s Place, London, WC2N 4JH
Budget: Hub by Premier Inn, 110 St Martins Lane, London WC2N 4BA
The London Coliseum opened on Christmas Eve 1904 as the ‘London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties’. The building was designed by Frank Matcham for Australian-born theatrical impresario Oswald Stoll, who, since 1902 had begun buying the freeholds of as many buildings as possible at the southern end of St Martin’s Lane.
Matcham and Stoll’s ambition was to create the largest, most luxurious venue of the age – a ‘people’s palace of entertainment’; more welcoming to families than a regular theatre and less highbrow than an opera house.
The theatre was designed to be larger in every way than the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which, at the time, was the largest theatre in London. The Coliseum would occupy a site covering an impressive one-and-a-quarter acres.
Initially, Oswald Stoll employed his own labourers with no contractor involved in the building project; instead, the project was overseen by a ‘clerk of works’, John F Revell. However, a firm of contractors, Messrs Patman and Fotheringham Ltd, were eventually brought in to complete the project.
The theatre has a 100ft frontage onto St Martin’s Lane in the Italian Renaissance style. Inside, patrons were treated to opulent surroundings, a grand marble staircase, and numerous tea salons and smoking rooms throughout the building. A glass-domed roof garden was a particular delight.
The theatre’s grid (the structure above the stage from which scenery and backdrops are suspended and flown in and out) was engineered by Messrs Drew-Bear, Perks & Co Ltd, of Battersea.
Despite its vast stage (55 feet wide by 92 feet deep), wing space at the Coliseum was limited due to the site dimensions on which the theatre was built – even Stoll had his limits. The proscenium arch was (and still is) the widest in London and, unusually, the stage is not raked. The Coliseum was one of the first theatres in London to have electric lighting and originally seated 2,939 patrons.
The theatre was built on four levels: Stalls, Dress Circle, Grand Tier and Balcony. A departure from convention in this period was that there was no Pit section at the rear of the stalls. ‘Pit Stalls’ as they were sometimes known, was an area sectioned off at the back of the main stalls seating, usually under the circle. This section most often accommodated the lower classes, was occasionally rowdy and often consisted of hard bench seating – it should not be confused with the modern ‘Orchestra Pit’ which is usually at the front of the stalls and at least partly under the stage.
By his decision not to include a Pit, Oswald Stoll was making a deliberate statement; the London Coliseum should be a ‘family house’, free from the often raucous behaviour in Edwardian Music Halls.
When it opened, this was one of the only theatres in Europe fitted with lifts (elevators) to transport theatregoers to the upper levels. It was also the first British theatre with a triple revolve, and seated the most patrons of any West End theatre. It remains the largest theatre in London to this day, albeit with a reduced capacity of 2,359.
The Coliseum’s giant revolve alone, cost a staggering £70,000 (approaching £10 million today). Its three concentric rings could turn independently, in both directions and the revolve was the first of its kind in the country. Sadly, this incredible feat of engineering was removed in 1976.
Another original feature was ‘The King’s Car’ – a richly furnished lounge on wheels. The idea was to transport visiting Royalty from the street directly into the Royal Box at the rear of the stalls, running through the foyer on tracks. Sadly, and rather embarrassingly, it broke down on Edward VII’s first visit and was never used again…although it did eventually find a use as the box office in the Stoll Theatre (now the site of the Peacock Theatre).
The inaugural performance on 24th December 1904 was a variety show including a ‘Grand Music Spectacular’ entitled ‘Port Arthur’, Allan Morris and the Coliseum Choristers, Miss Decima Moore, the Sisters Meredith, and a musical piece called ‘The Last Load’. The grand finale was a full-scale revolving chariot race. There were four performances each day, with the first and third and second and four performances being the same. Each lasted two hours, and in between performances, patrons could enjoy a band playing in the Terrace tea room.
No expense, comfort, or facility was spared; in each tea room was a kiosk from where tickets could be purchased, and from where those expecting important telephone calls/telegrams could receive or send messages – with ushers even bringing urgent messages directly to your seat.
Early programming included a mix of Music Hall and Variety shows. The theatre’s original latin motto, ‘Pro Bono Publico’ (for the public good) signalled its aspiration to welcome a cross-section of society. Sadly, despite these lofty ideals and its lavish design, this vast theatre struggled to attract sufficiently large audiences and in 1906, less than two years after opening, the Coliseum closed.
In December 1907, the Coliseum reopened and soon, its fortunes improved. In 1908, audiences enjoyed one of the Coliseum’s more eccentric performances when the theatre played host to an on-stage cricket match between the counties of Middlesex and Surrey. Umpires wore full evening dress and although the distance between stumps was reduced to 15 yards and a gauze curtain placed to protect the audience, this does suggest just how large the Coliseum and its stage both are.
The theatre was primarily used for plays, musical comedy and variety shows in its early years. In 1911, W S Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) produced his final play here, The Hooligan. The theatre continued to operate successfully as a home for Variety, featuring the biggest names of the age, right through until 1931.
On 8th April 1931, musical comedy White Horse Inn began a run of 651 performances, and this also marked a name change, with the theatre rebranded from the London Coliseum to the Coliseum Theatre. The production had a cast of 160 performers and three bands.
White Horse Inn was following by another successful production, Erik Charell’s Casanova with music by Johan Strauss, running for 429 performances. The set for Casanova included a magnificent wooden bridge, the construction of which was so complicated, that it remained in place until 1951, many years after Casnova closed.
In addition to its magnificent set, Casanova is remarkable for a second reason. Two actors, Arthur Fear and Charles Mayhew alternated the lead role for the entire run of the show. At the final performance, Mayhew was playing the role; at the final curtain call, Fear appeared alongside him in full costume. Mayhew appears to have objected to this, and a fight broke out on stage between the two actors, which had to be broken up by Miss Marie Lohr, the leading lady, in full view of the audience.
Following the arrival of the motion picture ‘talkies’, the 1930s also saw the theatre used as a cinema. This included the cinematic release of King Kong, which ran for months, with 10,000 people seeing the film each day.
During the Second World War, as well as continuing use as a theatre, the Coliseum served as a canteen for Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a speech from the stage.
Between 1936 and 1946, seasonal pantomimes such as Cinderella were performed here. Then, in 1947, Emile Littler’s production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun began a run of 1,304 performances – the longest run for any stage show in history at the time.
The 1950s saw a succession of hit American musical imports, beginning with Kiss Me Kate and followed by Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, and Damn Yankees. These were followed by a less successful run of Bells Are Ringing, which failed to set the tills ringing. Then, in 1958, the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company produced a revival of The Merry Widow, but this too was only moderately successful.
The theatre still retains many of its original features. In 1960, the building was given listed status, with English Heritage commending the theatre’s ‘exuberant Free Baroque ambitious design, the Edwardian ‘Theatre de Luxe of London’, with richly decorated interiors and a vast and grandiose auditorium’.
In June 1961, with the halcyon days of 1950s musicals behind it, the theatre was leased by MGM to use as a cinema while the nearby Empire, Leicester Square was rebuilt. The first film shown, from 6th June 1961, was Gone With The Wind, running for three months. On 2nd November, Bob Hope attended the world premiere of his film Bachelor In Paradise.
MGM’s lease expired on 19th May 1963, and the theatre was then leased to the Cinerama Corporation. From 1963, the venue was renamed the Coliseum Cinerama and used for ‘Cinerama’ cinema screenings. This involved three projectors and the installation of an 80ft wide by 30ft tall deeply curved screen. The first Cinerama screening was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm on 16th July 1963. The theatre continued as a cinema until 1968.
From 1968, the theatre reverted to its former name, the London Coliseum. In the same year, the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company moved into the theatre. Prior to the company moving in, the theatre was fully restored and a large orchestra pit installed. The first production in the newly refurbished venue was the opera Don Giovanni, which opened on 21st August 1968. The production was directed by Sir John Gielgud and designed by Derek Jarman.
On 14th December 1969, The Who performed here – footage from the show was recorded on 16mm cameras.
Sadler’s Wells Opera’s move here turned out to be so successful, that the company now made the Coliseum its new, permanent home. It mounted operas and ballets from around the world. From 1973, it became known simply as English National Opera (ENO).
In 1992, English National Opera (ENO) bought the freehold of the building for £12.8 million.
Between 2000 and 2004, a design team including RHWL (architects) and Arup (building engineers) carried out extensive renovations to the existing building. Work was supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Vernon and Hazel Ellis, along with many trust and individual donors.
In 2004 and 2006, the London Coliseum played host to the Royal Variety Performances.
The ENO has premiered many works here, including Harrison Birtwhistle’s The Mask of Orpheus and Iain Bell’s Jack The Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel. It has also cultivated an audience for the works of Philip Glass. Most importantly, the ENO is a powerful force for encouraging new audiences for Opera and Dance and for involving young people in Theatre.
Today, the London Coliseum is primarily used by English National Opera (ENO), with operas usually performed in English, and is also the home of the English National Ballet. In recent years it has also been used as a receiving house for large scale musical revivals such as Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close, Sweeney Todd starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, and Chess starring Michael Ball.
The London Coliseum has two public lifts (elevators) which can provide step-free access to all levels for disabled patrons (except the Upper Circle). Along with Selfridges, it was one of the first two places in the UK to sell Coca-Cola. It is undoubtedly Frank Matcham’s masterwork, and while indoor tours were suspended during the pandemic, you can still enjoy a virtual google streetview tour of the London Coliseum.
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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.
London Theatres by Michael Coveney & Peter Dazeley, is available from Waterstones and Amazon and provides stunning photography and commentary on London’s iconic theatres.