Posted by: krisinhawaii | May 15, 2008

The Criterion Theatre.

Now that I’m back home, I have more time to google places we saw and find out about their history. This was another highly cool place Chris and I visited (with Eroica): The Criterion Theatre. We had a drink in the elegant and yet surprisingly affordable restaurant. (A well-kept secret!) Just reading more about its history here:

The White Bear & Regent’s Street

The White Bear Inn In the latter half of the 17th century, on the site of the Criterion Theatre, there stood a coaching inn called the White Bear with the address of No. 221 Pickadilly. It stood on a sloping ground stretching from the south side of Piccadilly to the north side of Jermyn Street with Haymarket to the east. The inn was surrounded by covered entrances and adjacent to it was an open area named Fleece Yard. There is also evidence of another tavern called the Fleece Inn.

In 1811 John Nash, the prominent Regency architect, developed New Street (as Regent’s Street was originally known) between Soho and Mayfair. It was to be extended south to Pall Mall providing a ceremonial route for The Prince Regent’s residence at Carlton House in St James’ to the new Regent’s Park. The intersection of where New Street crossed Piccadilly was named Regent’s Circus South and created the western boundary of The White Bear.

Map of Piccadilly 1875During the latter half of the 18th century the White Bear’s reputation was one of the finest in the West End. Coaches to Dover, Margate, Ramsgate, Canterbury and Rochester left regularly at dawn every morning. The White Bear was also a popular pick up point for other coaches heading for the west country.

The White Bear Inn survived for a considerable number of years after the end of the coaching age. A respectable hotel, known as Webb’s Hotel, had been established in two of the houses in Piccadilly, whilst the White Bear had become ‘the resort of Sporting characters’. In 1866 a building lease of the whole plot was granted to Joseph Challis, the proprietor of Webb’s Hotel, who in 1870 assigned the lease to Messrs. Spiers and Pond a firm of wine merchants and caterers. The White Bear Inn was demolished in 1870.

Building the Theatre

Thomas Verity's Original Ground PlanSpiers and Pond held an architectural competition for designs for a large restaurant and tavern with ancillary public rooms. The competition was won by Thomas Verity out of 15 entries. He designed a ground floor with vestibule, dining-room, buffet and smoking-room. The first floor was entirely devoted to dining-rooms and serving rooms. The whole of the Piccadilly front on the second floor was occupied by the grand hall. Behind it were another dining-room, service-rooms and a room tentatively labelled ‘picture gallery or ball supper-room’. In the basement there was to be another hall, for concerts and the exhibition of pictures. Building work began in the summer of 1871, and was completed in 1873 at a total cost of over £80,000.

In January 1873, when the carcass of the building was already completed, the proprietors successfully applied to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests for permission to convert the concert hall in the basement into a theatre, with entrances from both Piccadilly and Jermyn Street.

The interiors of the new building were extensively decorated with ornamental tile-work, one of the first examples of the use of this material on such a scale following its successful use in the recently completed refreshment rooms at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). The cartoons for the figure subjects were drawn by A. S. Coke. The ornamental tile-work and painted decorations of both the theatre and the restaurant were the work of Messrs. Simpson and Son.

The Criterion Restaurant was opened to the public on 17th November 1873 and the Criterion Theatre on 21st March 1874 under the management of Henry J. Byron & EP Hingston.

Creating Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus circa 1900In 1877, not too long after The Criterion had opened the area in front of the theatre was redeveloped to make way for a new street linking Piccadilly and Bloomsbury. The aim was not merely the formation of over a mile of main thoroughfare sixty feet wide, but also the abolition of some of the worst slums in London. The new street was named Shaftesbury Avenue, in honour of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Along with the removal of Tichbourne Street and Regent’s Circus South this created a new larger intersection in front of The Criterion where Piccadilly, Regent’s Street & Shaftesbury Avenue met. It was called Piccadilly Circus.

The famous statue of Eros was erected in 1893, officially titled the Angel of Christian Charity and inaccurately named Eros ever since (It is actually Anteros, Eros’ twin), and stood in the centre of Piccadilly Circus. Eros stands on top of the Shaftesbury Monument Memorial Fountain, a further commemoration to Lord Shaftesbury and he points to the Earl’s ancestral home at Wimbourne in Dorset. The statue and fountain were moved 30 yards nearer The Criterion in the early 1980s in an attempt to improve the traffic congestion.

Early Years of the Theatre

1900's Programme AdvertThe programme of the first performance on 21st March 1874, consisted of An American Lady written and performed by Henry Byron and a piece by W. S. Gilbert, with music by Alfred Cellier, entitled Topsyturveydom. Unfortunately, the opening does not seem to have made much of an impression on Mr. Gilbert. In a letter to Edgar Pemberton, author of the book on The Criterion in 1903, Gilbert wrote: “I am sorry to say that in my mind is an absolute blank to the opening of The Criterion. I never saw Topsyturveydom. 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!” Nevertheless, Gilbert was 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 flop, Haste to the Wedding, with music by George Grossmith (an operatic version of Gilbert’s 1873 play, The Wedding March).

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 15th April 1876. When Wyndham left in 1899 to open his own theatre, The Wyndham’s Theatre (and then the New Theatre, now called the Noel Coward Theatre, in 1903) he remained the lessee bringing in various managements and their companies.

The Criterion Theatre Foyer CeilingIn November 1882, the Metropolitan Board of Works condemned The Criterion on the grounds that it would be unsafe in the event of fire and also, as it was below ground and lit by gas, there was risk of toxic fumes. As a result the proprietors carried out extensive alterations between March 1883 and April 1884. Thomas Verity supervised the alterations (Verity by now had also designed the Comedy Theatre in 1881 and The Empire Theatre in 1882). A new area open to the sky was formed on a site formerly occupied by part of the ground floor dining-room. Corridors were built along the Piccadilly front, leading at one end to the box office entrance (west) and at the other to a new crush room and exit (east). In the auditorium most of the boxes were removed in order to increase the size of the circles. New decorations were carried out by Messrs. Simpson and Sons. The improvements also included an elaborate system of air conditioning and the installation of electric lights throughout the theatre. Still unsure that the improvements were safe The Metropolitan Board of Works had to vote twice before the necessary licence was issued and the theatre was re-opened on 16 April 1884.

Twentieth Century

Much more extensive alterations were made between 1921 and 1924, when the property immediately to the west was being rebuilt from the designs of Sir Reginald Blomfield. Parts of the upper floors of this block were added to the Criterion Restaurant, the whole of which was now to be reached by way of a new entrance and staircase in Regent Street. The former entrance vestibule in Piccadilly Circus and the ground floor of The Criterion front were converted into shops. The ‘Marble Restaurant’ and Theatre were left as before.

View from the StageDuring 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 and pieces by Anouilh, Dario Fo and others.

In the 1970s the whole of 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. However, this proved to be a false dawn and throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the row increased and the Equity Save London’s Theatre Committee organised high profile demonstrations (campaigners included Sir John Gielgud, Edward Woodward, Dame Diana Rigg, Robert Morley and Prunella Scales) as they feared that the theatre would still be lost. Eventually the theatre’s future was secured, but it had to close temporarily from April 1989 to October 1992.

The Criterion Today

Dress Circle Refurbishment DrawingDuring the refurbishment the entire block was demolished save the original part of the restaurant, the theatre auditorium & entrance staircase along with the concert hall above. The Regent’s Street entrance was lost, so too the entire backstage area including the dressing rooms, offices and bars. The concert hall was converted into shops and in most part houses Lillywhites today.

The building work created a new backstage area with dressing rooms, offices and workshops plus two new bars (Greene & Stalls). The auditorium was refurbished and remodelled slightly and the theatre was extensively re-equipped with modern sound and lighting systems. The Criterion Theatre re-opened under the management of Sally Greene (who had refurbished and re-opened the Richmond Theatre) on October 10th 1992 with Ennio Marchetto.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company made the Criterion Theatre their home for 9 years ending in April 2005. Since then recent productions have included: The Gruffalo; What the Butler Saw; Otherwise Engaged and Mack & Mabel. The current production of The 39 Steps opened on September 20th 2006.


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