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When 17th-century pub The White Bear was knocked down in 1870, the plan was to make way for a concert hall. But the site that eventually became The Criterion opened in 1874. It wasn’t long though before the theatre was confronted with a huge health and safety risk: suffocating its audience members! For a few years, this was handled by pumping fresh air into the auditorium, but by 1884 the Criterion installed the latest technology – electricity – and its patrons could breathe easy.
Its underground location means that since 1906, when Piccadilly Station opened next door, a noticeable train rumbling could be heard. During the First World War and in the Interwar Period, the theatre had two shows that ran for more than 1,000 performances each – Walter W Ellis’s A Little Bit of Fluff and Terence Rattigan’s career-launching French Without Tears. The BBC used the Criterion as a broadcast platform during World War II, as it was deemed safe from the Blitz.
After serving the theatregoing community for a century, the Criterion was threatened with closure in the 1970s. Protests flooded in from leading figures in theatre and the campaign managed to save the Criterion. Its new managers took the near-closure to heart and set up the Criterion Theatre Trust to ensure its protection for years to come, and a shiny remodeling by notorious decorator Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to make sure it still stayed attractive to potential clients.
As for its productions, the Criterion Theatre certainly hasn’t been afraid of commitment recently, with productions including Run for Your Wife and The 39 Steps.