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One of the lowest theatres in the West End, visiting the Criterion requires that you go downstairs, even if sitting in the Upper Circle! The Stalls are as low as London Underground platforms too.
Its underground location means that since 1906, when Piccadilly Station opened next door, a noticeable train rumbling could be heard.
Because of its low-lying nature, moving set and equipment to the stage is tricky business – all required to be done by ramps.
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. This success took more than 20 years to be repeated again, with Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head in 1963.
The BBC used the Criterion as a broadcast platform during World War II, as it was deemed safe from the Blitz.
Stephen Fry is the current Chairman of the theatre’s trustees.
When the 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 was deemed more suitable as a theatre, and opened in 1874 with a double feature of a comedy and a musical. It wasn’t long though before the theatre was confronted with a huge health and safety risk: suffocating its audience members! Being an underground gaslit theatre, toxic fumes had nowhere to go other than to be breathed in. 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.
After serving the theatregoing community for a century (including throughout both world wars), the Criterion was threatened with closure in the 1970s. Protests flooded in from leading figures in theatre (including John Gielgud and Diana Rigg) 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 a six year run of the farce Run For Your Wife, a 10 year residency of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and the Alfred Hitchcock comic adaptation The 39 Steps keeping its audiences amused since 2006.