The Criterion Theatre was originally intended as a concert hall, with the space’s function changed during its construction in the early 1870s. The large space available between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly Circus (Regent Circus) was earmarked for a restaurant, dining rooms, ballroom and concert hall by the caterers Spiers and Pond. They launched a competition to find a design for this complex, eventually won by Thomas Verity. The majority of this development was to reside underground, and the Criterion Theatre is the only West End theatre to be situated almost entirely underground – even the Upper Circle is not at street level. The theatre was completed in 1873, with interior work designed by Simpson and Son, and a façade heavily influenced by French Renaissance architecture.
The Criterion was known for housing comic opera in its early years, including works by W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) and George Grossmith, notably the show Haste to the Wedding, an operatic adaptation of an 1873 play by Gilbert. Under new management in 1975 by Charles Wyndham the theatre became known for light comedy, starting with The Great Divorce Case in 1876.
In 1883 the theatre had to be renovated to meet the Metropolitan Board of Works standards – being situated underground the air supply to the auditorium was not considered satisfactory so the auditorium was reconstructed, the stage was updated and new ventilation shafts were installed. This work also saw the installation of electricity to the theatre.
The building surrounding the theatre was extensively rebuilt between 1989 and 1992 and the theatre was renovated too, but the Victorian auditorium was well-preserved and still stands today. Successful shows since this renovation include productions from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and the long running The 39 Steps. The Criterion Theatre previously played host to Mischief Theatre Company’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.
The auditorium has three levels – Stalls, Dress Circle and Upper Circle.
The front rows of the Stalls offers good views of the stage, though the seating is not raked very steeply. Problems arise towards the back, where the Dress Circle overhang affects the view from Row M, and pillars supporting the Dress Circle obstruct the view from here to the back.
The Dress Circle has specifically designated ‘restricted view’ seats due to the number of pillars supporting the Upper Circle in Row C.
The Upper Circle does not offer much legroom, but due to the lack of balcony at this theatre views are not restricted by pillars or an overhang.