The Criterion Theatre first opened its doors on the 21st March 1874 with a programme including H J Byron’s An American Lady, and Topseyturveydom, a piece by W S Gilbert one half of the famous light-operatic duo Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Theatre was designed by the architect Thomas Verity who was in fact the winner of a competition held to design a concert hall complex. The Criterion is considered to be the best surviving example of Thomas Verity’s’ work, the façade being built of Portland stone incorporating the influence and style of the French Renaissance.
The site was originally The White Bear, a 17th century gas lit posting inn. It is remarkable that almost the entire building is underground and hence posed an ongoing fire risk problem for the Metropolitan Board of Works. Ventilation being a key design issue in 1884 electric lights and air-conditioning were introduced.
Notable productions and events include John Gielgud treading the boards in 1932 in Musical Chairs. The Playwright Terence Rattigan launches his career with a West End smash French Without Tears which ran for 3 years. In 1940 came World War 2 and the Blitz and the Criterion became a very useful subterranean radio station for the BBC.
As London swings into the sixties the Harold Pinter production A Slight Ache was performed by stars including Emlyn Williams, Richard Briers and Wendy Craig. And Joe Orton’s Loot starred Michael Bates and Kenneth Cranham becoming the Evening Standard’s Play of the Year.
Threatened ‘redevelopment’ of the Criterion by the Greater London Council in 1972 brought protestors to the streets. Familiar stars including John Gielgud, Diana Rigg and Warren Mitchell were among others to save the theatre.
Six whole years of “farce” in 1983 brought Run For Your Wife starring Bernard Cribbins, Patrick Mower, Ernie Wise, Aimi Macdonald and Una Stubbs.
In 1992 The Criterion Theatre Trust was born and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen refurbishes the auditorium and front of house.
Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense drama The 39 Steps was performed for the first time in 2006 and ran for six years.
2011 brings Stephen Fry as Chairman of the Trustees taking over the chair from Lord Attenborough.