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From its Parthenon-esque entrance to the misty tangerine walls to the most elaborately decorated boxes and circles, the Lyceum Theatre is a feast for the eyes. Holding a mammoth 2,000 people, this former ballroom was restored in the 1990s as a venue that only seems worthy of the most extravagant musical productions.
Sitting in the cheap seats at the Lyceum may cost you more than you think – you may stumble upon the ghost of a woman allegedly haunting the theatre, who holds a head in her lap! The head is believed to belong to a one-time landowner of the land the Lyceum was built on, since he was beheaded.
The site of the Lyceum has actually been used for theatres longer than the street it’s currently on – Wellington Street – has existed.
The Lyceum was the site of the first London exhibition of waxworks by Madame Tussaud in 1802.
The theatre was converted into a cinema in 1937 with over £12,000 invested. However the owners, not realising distribution rights were required, were forced to convert it back to a theatre after just one screening.
The Lyceum Theatre proved resilient in the 20th century, standing in the destruction path of two separate redevelopment projects. In 1939, the theatre was set to be demolished and replaced by a block of flats and then a roundabout. However, the outbreak of World War II halted these roadworks. Again in 1968, a proposed Covent Garden expansion almost saw the Lyceum knocked down with several other theatres, but was saved thanks to a protest campaign.
The Lyceum was one of the first theatres to be lit with gas (instead of candles). It was also the first theatre to hang a balcony over the circle seats.
In the 19th century, the Lyceum Theatre was home to the "Sublime Society of Beef Steaks" whose two dozen members met on a weekly basis to eat steak and be merry.
Bram Stoker worked as business manager of the theatre for a number of years in the 19th century. His most famous novel Dracula was inspired by Henry Irving, an articulate actor who performed at and managed the Lyceum for many years.
The history of the Lyceum Theatre is as diverse as it is epic. From its early 18th century days as a gallery to its spells as a circus and a chapel, it settled into theatre life in 1809 when the Drury Lane Theatre Company dropped in. Still, it took a few more years as ‘The English Opera House’ before it burned down in 1830 and rebranded itself as the 'New Theatre Royal, Lyceum', experimenting with English operas for a while before winning praise for its dramatized Dickens stories.
Perhaps the Lyceum’s principal historical figure was Sir Henry Irving, the first knighted actor, who managed the theatre during its biggest boom years with his sell-out productions of Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and the enormously popular Faust, which saw six ticket applications for every seat. Unfortunately, Irving’s Lyceum run ended abruptly with a fire. But the new building (despite some dabbling in variety shows by new managers) returned to its dramatic roots and introduced seasonal pantomimes.
For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Lyceum was anything but a theatre; it went through a period as the ‘Lyceum Ballroom’ and a premium concert venue that hosted rock stars Led Zeppelin, Queen and U2. Its future looked troubling when it was abandoned in the ‘80s, but thankfully was bought up and refurbished in 1996 as a big-scale musical venue with a raised ceiling and new orchestra pit. Opening with Jesus Christ Superstar and then Oklahoma!, it has been part of the ‘Circle of Life’ since 1999 with the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King.