Current Show: The Lion King
First previewed: 24th September 1999
Booking until: 31st December 2022
Running time: 2h 30m including interval
Address: 21 Wellington Street, London WC2E 7RQ
Air Conditioning: Awaiting information
Current Owner: ATG Theatres
Box Office: +44 (0) 3330 096 690
Discounts, Day seats, Rush tickets & Lotteries
Box Office: +44 (0) 3330 096 690
Stage Door: +44 (0) 844 871 3000 (call charges apply)
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) 800 912 6972
Email: Lyceumboxoffice@theambassadors.com or check more information via ATG Lyceum Theatre info.
Society of London Theatre also offers useful information for visitors with a disability or specific access need.
Nearest Tube: Covent Garden
Buses: Number 9, 11, 15, 87, 91 and 26, 76, 341 and 176
Check out Transport for London’s excellent TFL Journey Planner
Luxury: One Aldwych, 1 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BZ
Mid: Strand Palace Hotel, 372, Strand, London WC2R 0JJ
Budget: Travelodge Covent Garden, 10 Drury Lane, London WC2B 5RE
A Lyceum Theatre has stood in this part of the West End since 1772, albeit originally several metres south, at 354 Strand, on what is now the site of the Lyceum Tavern. The first Lyceum was designed by architect James Paine for exhibitions by ‘The Society of Artists’ to rival the Parisian ‘grand salons’ and functioned primarily as an exhibition space rather that a theatre. The foundation stone was laid in 1771 and the Lyceum opened on 11th May 1772.
The exhibition space was unable to compete with the Royal Academy and between 1786 and 1789, the building became home to the Royal Waxworks of Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester, who specialised in life sized representations of royal figures.
In March 1790, the Lyceum was put up for auction, but the building failed to sell. Instead, the space became a home to a Phantasmagorica, including an exhibition of exotic animals; Ostriches, zebras and even a baby Rhinoceros, an Irish giant and, intriguingly, Mr Diller’s Philosophical Fireworks. Shortly after this, the building was leased by song writer Charles Dibdin for dance and other forms of entertainment.
In between its many reinventions, the Lyceum also hosted bare-knuckle boxing matches, lectures and commercial auctions.
In 1794, composer Samuel Arnold Sr converted the interior to a conventional theatre auditorium. The move angered owners of London’s existing patent theatres, and Arnold’s application to operate the Lyceum as a theatre was declined. After 1794, the theatre exhibited Maria Porter’s Great Panoramas, vast scenes such as the Siege of Acre, which moved on rollers. Between 1794 and 1809, the Lyceum also hosted events as varied as a circus, a chapel, and even the first exhibition of waxworks by Madame Tussauds.
In 1805, the Lyceum became briefly known as the ‘Loyal Theatre of Mirth’ after staging a production of The Female Hussar.
The theatre was finally granted its full theatrical license in 1809 and for the following three years, it hosted performances by the Drury Lane Company who needed a temporary home after their own theatre was gutted by fire. The Drury Lane Company first decamped to the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, but then moved to the Lyceum on 11th April 1809.
In 1811, the Lyceum staged William Dimond’s three act opera The Peasant Boy. This featured one of the earliest Tableaux Vivants – a recreation of artworks using human figures. On 9th May 1811, the theatre hosted the London Première of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.
In October 1812, the new Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was completed, and the Drury Lane Company was able to leave the Lyceum.
In 1816, the theatre was rebuilt to designs by playwright and architect Samuel Beazley and from 1816 to 1830, the Lyceum served as The English Opera House. In 1817, the theatre became the first theatre in Britain to have its stage lit by gas. During this time, it also hosted the ‘Sublime Society of Beef Steaks’ which had been founded in 1735 by theatre manager Henry Rich at the nearby Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The society never exceeded twenty-four members, comprising the elite of the artistic community, royalty, and great military leaders. Over the years, meeting in various locations and in various forms, members have included William Hogarth, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Richard Attenborough, Edward Lutyens and Stephen Fry.
On 16th February 1830, The English Opera House was destroyed by fire. Four years later, construction of a new theatre, the ‘Theatre Royal Lyceum & English Opera House’ began on a site just a few metres North-West, with an entrance on the then-newly built Wellington Street. Whilst the first Lyceum Theatre no longer exists, the Lyceum Tavern which now stands on the original site, has a remarkably similar façade, offering visitors a sense of how the original theatre looked.
Today’s Lyceum Theatre, situated nearby on Wellington Street, was designed by Samuel Beazley and built by the partnership of Thomas Grissell and his cousin Morton Peto. Grissell and Peto were also the civil engineers behind London’s brick sewers, many of its railways, and Nelson’s Column. Beazley was prolific as both an architect and playwright. He also designed the St James’s Theatre and the colonnade of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane as well as the first London Bridge station and South Eastern Railway. Beazley somehow also found time to write over a hundred farces and light entertainments for the stage, many of which were performed in the theatre he designed.
Beazley was known to have been something of a prankster in his younger days – illustrated by his involvement with Theodore Hook, a composer who had engineered the ‘Berners Street Hoax’ some years earlier.
Perhaps it was Beazley’s sense of humour rather than his workload which caused one rather amusing error in the new building’s design – there was no way for the public to access the gallery. Quite how no-one noticed this before construction began is a mystery. Eventually, an exterior staircase was built on Exeter Street and a doorway broken through the exterior wall to allow the public to reach the top level of the theatre.
The new theatre finally opened on 14th July 1834, although there have been several alterations and rebuilds since. The most notable of these occurred in 1882, under the architect C J Phipps, and again in 1904 under the architect Bertie Crewe. The main portico is the only part of the original 1834 building still standing – look up as you enter the theatre, and you will see its imposing pillars towering above you.
The new theatre was built at a cost of £40,000 (close to £4 million today). The new Lyceum theatre championed English rather than Italian opera. Several works by John Barnett were produced here, including The Mountain Sylph which is often credited as the first modern English opera. Numerous other English operas followed and in 1841, composer Michael William Balfe took over as the theatre’s manager.
Balfe’s tenure proved relatively unsuccessful and in 1844, management of the theatre was taken over by Robert Keeley and Mary Anne Keeley. In the following years, the theatre became associated with adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels and Christmas stories. These included Martin Chuzzlewit, which ran for over one hundred performances – a long run at the time.
The theatre’s next managers were Madame Lucia Elizabeth Vestris and Charles James Mathews, who, between 1847 to 1855 produced James Planché’s ‘fairy extravaganzas’, popular with the public for their spectacular stage effects. Although relatively unknown today, Planché was pivotal in lobbying parliament to introduce copyright laws and today’s writers have much to thank him for.
In 1860, Tom Taylor’s adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities played here, with Dickens himself acting as consultant.
From 1863 to 1867, Charles Fechter managed the theatre. One of the first productions was a W S Gilbert play, Uncle Baby. Like Vestris and Mathews before him, Fechter was a proponent of spectacular productions. In 1866, Dion Boucicault’s The Long Strike, an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels Mary Barton and Lizzie Leigh was produced. Then, in 1867, W S Gilbert returned to present a Christmas pantomime titled Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.
In 1871, new managers, American Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman and his wife, actress Sidney Frances Cowell, introduced one of the century’s greatest actors, Henry Irving to the Lyceum stage. One of his first appearances was in French melodrama, The Bells, followed in 1872 by Charles I. Irving’s greatest triumph came two years later when he played Hamlet. All three productions ran for over 150 performances – unusually long runs for the time. After Hezekiah Bateman’s death in 1878, artistic differences between Irving and Bateman’s wife saw her depart to become manager of Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
In 1878, Sir Henry Irving took over as Theatre Manager, appointing a Business Manager by the name of Bram Stoker. Stoker wrote much of his masterpiece, Dracula, whilst working within the theatre’s walls and it is said that Irving himself provided much of the inspiration for Count Dracula. Indeed, Stoker intended for Irving to play the role of Dracula on stage, but although a stage version did eventually appear on the Lyceum stage, Irving himself declined the role.
Irving’s tenure as the Lyceum’s manager was dominated by Shakespeare productions in which Irving starred himself, often opposite one of the era’s most famous actresses, Ellen Terry. Their first appearance together was another production of Hamlet in 1878. This was followed by productions of The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. Other productions included Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons, Charles Reade’s The Lyons Mail, William Gorman Wills’ Faust, before a return to Shakespeare classics Macbeth, Henry VIII and Cymbeline.
Of course, other performers did take centre stage during the final decades of the Victorian era. Notably, in 1889, the world’s leading Italian tenor, Francesco Tamagno appeared at the Lyceum in the London premier of Verdi’s Otello. Yet is was Henry Irving and Ellen Terry’s partnership which defined the era until their final performance together here in 1902.
The theatre was eventually sold to Thomas Barrasford, a British entrepreneur with interests in theatres throughout northern England and Scotland. It was gutted internally and redesigned in 1904 by Bertie Crewe. Crewe retained only the façade and grand portico of Beazley’s design, completely rebuilding the interior in richly ornamented Rococo style.
The theatre reopened on 31st December 1904 as a 3,600 seat rival to the Palace Theatre and Stoll’s Coliseum. In the early years of the twentieth century, the theatre presented a mix of Music Hall and Variety. However, the London authorities refused to grant Barrasford a drinks licence, limiting the success of the new Lyceum.
Eventually, competition with other theatres proved too strong and from 30th March 1907, the Lyceum reverted to presenting drama, this time under the joint management of H R Smith and Ernest Carpenter.
In 1909, brothers Walter and Frederick Melville took over the Lyceum Theatre, (they would later build the Princess Theatre, known today as the Shaftesbury Theatre). The brothers came from an acting family and focused on presenting popular melodramas, often writing their own scripts. For the next thirty years the brothers would reign as pantomime kings at the Lyceum.
In 1919, further minor alterations were made to the theatre by Edward Jones.
During the Melville brothers’ reign, there was occasionally as much drama offstage as on. By 1921, the brothers occupied different offices within the Lyceum and were barely speaking to one another. Relations broke down to such an extent that lawyers were brought in, and a decision was made to close the theatre.
Eventually, a resolution was found, and on the final night of a run of Cinderella (18th February 1922), an announcement was made on stage that the brothers were reconciled. Sadly, by this stage, legal wheels to close the theatre were already in motion, and as a result the theatre closed, putting dozens out of work. The Lyceum finally reopened its doors on 12th July 1922.
In the years between the wars, the Lyceum presented dramas for ten months of each year, followed by pantomimes each Christmas.
In 1937, sensing the public’s growing interest in movies, Frederick Melville decided the Lyceum should be converted into a cinema. Extensive changes were made, including lowering the floor of the auditorium and installing new seating and carpeting. Despite this costing nearly £12,000 (around £1 million today), Melville overlooked just how difficult it would be to secure distribution rights to major studio films against established cinema groups, and just a month later, the Lyceum was restored for use as a theatre.
The final Lyceum pantomime was Queen of Hearts in 1938. These pantomimes were presented as harlequinades, a mixture of slapstick clowning, juggling and acrobatics. The closure of the Lyceum in 1939 effectively ended the tradition of harlequinades in the London’s theatres.
The Lyceum Theatre was bought by London City Council in 1939. The Council had plans to demolish the Lyceum, along with several other theatres nearby, to make way for a new road layout. The theatre finally closed on 1st July 1939 with a landmark performance of Hamlet, produced by and starring John Gielgud. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Gielgud was the great nephew of Ellen Terry, the actress who had starred in so many Shakespeare plays at the first Lyceum Theatre.
An existential threat loomed with council plans to allow a block of flats (apartments) to be built on the site. However, by May of 1940, a new scheme was devised to widen the Strand and built a traffic roundabout on the site. On the 17th June, an auction was held to sell the entire contents of the building. The complete mahogany Box Office sold for just ten shillings (around £30 today) and many other fixtures for just pennies.
Due to the continuation of the Second World War, the demolition of the theatre was eventually put on hold. It remained empty throughout the war years and thankfully its planned demolition never took place.
London City Council’s road improvement plans eventually collapsed, and the theatre was reprieved. The Lyceum remained closed for the duration of the war. The conversion was carried out by Matthews & Sons, and when the theatre finally reopened its doors in 1945, it did so as a Mecca Ballroom, titled the Palais de Dance but more often known as the ‘Lyceum Ballroom’.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Lyceum regularly played host to the Miss World beauty contests. Big bands regularly played, including the Oscar Rabin Band.
From the 1960s, the theatre became a favourite venue for pop concerts and TV broadcasts. This was despite a proposed redevelopment of Covent Garden by the GLC which, in 1968, once again saw the theatre under threat of demolition.
Delays to the GLC’s scheme proved to be the Lyceum’s saving grace when, in 1972, a vociferous campaign by Equity and the Musicians Union under the banner ‘Save London Theatres Campain’ eventually triumphed. In January 1973, the Lyceum Theatre was granted Grade II listed status, finally preventing any further demolition plans.
Just some of the major bands and artists appearing here over the years are The Clash, Queen, The Police, The Who, U2, Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd. Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Live! Album was recorded here in July 1975.
Through this period, the Lyceum became increasingly dilapidated and in 1986, after promenade performances of the NT/Bill Bryden adaptation of the Mysteries trilogy, the Lyceum closed once again. In the same year, the GLC was abolished, and a 125-year lease sold on the building to Brent Walker, a British company with interests in pubs and gambling.
The freehold of the Lyceum Theatre was later transferred to the Theatres Trust, who were able to negotiate with Brent Walker a successful transfer of the lease to the Apollo Leisure Group who, with National Lottery funding, undertook a £14 million refurbishment of the building with Holohan Architects. The theatre was painstakingly restored and reconverted as a theatre, capable of staging large-scale musicals and opera, with a large orchestra pit.
The Lyceum was reopened by HRH Prince Charles on 31st October 1996. The first major show of the new era was a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which played from 1996 to 1998.
This was followed by a transfer of the National Theatre production of Oklahoma! The show made a star of a young Australian actor by the name of Hugh Jackman.
In 1999, the London production of Disney’s The Lion King opened. The production ran for over twenty years until a hiatus when all London theatres were closed by the Covid-19 pandemic. To compound the theatre’s problems, on 11th May 2020 the theatre flooded, however, the Lion King eventually roared back into life and the Lyceum Theatre reopened in July 2021.
The original Pit entrance to the current theatre can still be seen today beside the Lyceum Tavern on the Strand, although the entrance now leads to an open space used by the tavern. Today, the Lyceum Theatre has a capacity of circa 2,000 and is Grade II* listed.
The theatre was bought in 2009 and is currently owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group.
- The Lion King has played at the Lyceum Theatre since 1999
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.