The Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus is a beloved venue in the West End, having first emerged in the 19th century before maintaining its place in the capital right up to the modern day. Its time has seen it emerge as one of the best places to witness light comedy in the 1870s and a hundred years later was also the recipient of great support from actors and the public during a time in which it was feared the venue would be lost forever. Today it is the home of a long running production of “The 39 Steps”, which is best known as a book by John Buchan and a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The architect behind the Criterion Theatre in the 1870s was Thomas Verity, who had been handed the task after winning a competition, leading to its completion in 1873. Verity was well known in the London theatre scene at the time, having contributed a wealth of buildings to the capital of which The Comedy Theatre is the only one that remains to this day. He had designed the building for the caterers Spiers and Pond and amongst its features was its underground setting, which was a source of controversy when it opened, but became very useful during the Second World War.
At the time of the conflict the BBC used the venue to broadcast during the Blitz and suddenly it was clear that it would be of great help to the capital at a time in which aerial bombardments were causing great damage (with some West End venues damaged by the assault – in some cases beyond repair).
Then, in the 1970s, there was a planned redevelopment of the site, which caused great controversy yet again, this time as it was felt that the building was in danger. Though rules were set in place to ensure certain stipulations were met, the building still saw people coming out in support of leaving it alone and as the theatre has since been Grade II* listed, audiences can look forward to its continuing presence in the West End.
This presence has led to further shows emerging on its stage, with shows including “Mack & Mabel”, “Star Wars – Shortened” and “The 39 Steps” amongst those running in the last decade.
The first shows to appear at the Criterion Theatre took the forms of “An American Lady” from Henry J Byron and “Topsyturveydom” by W S Gilbert. Although the latter is still performed today in some forms, with amateur dramatics companies presenting it, the show was not one that was received well by Gilbert himself, who apparently considered it to be unimpressionable - so much so that he did not even see it. Set in a world where everything is opposite, it depicts politics and the monarch in an unfavourable light, even going as far as to lampoon them.
In the 20th century the venue would take on various roles and perhaps the most significant was as the location for the BBC to continue broadcasting during the Blitz. Afterwards, it would return as a location to witness some well known live shows and amongst those to appear during this time was a production of “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. The production is the famous play in which two tramps, seemingly idly passing the time by, realise that they are both standing around near a large tree for the same reason – they are waiting for the mysterious Godot to arrive. During this time they famously bicker and clown around, whilst some colourful characters pass them by.
In more recent times the Criterion has welcomed abridged versions of the works of Shakespeare and also a shortened version of “Star Wars”. The former saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company host “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”, in addition to various other shows, over a period of almost ten years to the middle of the last decade. “Star Wars” followed in 2006, in addition to a production of “Mack and Mabel”, which follows the Hollywood director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand. John Doyle directed, with performers taking to the stage including “Starsky and Hutch” star David Soul.
But then another show opened that would remain at the Criterion Theatre right up to the modern day and it takes the form of John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps”, which is best known for its movie adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock. When a spy is murdered in the presence of Richard Hannay, he must embark on a quest to prove his innocence, which includes discovering the mystery behind the 39 Steps. The production includes some famous set pieces involving the Forth Bridge and the Flying Scotsman, making it a popular production that continues to draw in crowds to the Criterion Theatre.
Further Facts about the Criterion Theatre
• John Gielgud, Diana Rigg, Edward Woodward, Prunella Scales and Robert Morley were amongst those to campaign on behalf of the venue in the 1970s when it was apparently under threat from redevelopment.
• In 2007, “The 39 Steps”, which has been running from 2006, won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
|Friday, 24 Mar, 2017||Criterion Theatre, London||The Comedy About A Bank Robbery|
|Saturday, 25 Mar, 2017||Criterion Theatre, London||The Comedy About A Bank Robbery|
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|Wednesday, 29 Mar, 2017||Criterion Theatre, London||The Comedy About A Bank Robbery|
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