History of the Criterion



A new circus comes to town

Having demolished the White Bear, a 17th century inn, Thomas Verity (Victorian entrepreneur) builds a new development called Regent’s Circus – complete with a music hall.

1874 Our very first ‘First Night’

March 21st to be exact, with a programme including H J Byron’s An American Lady and Topseyturveydom, a piece by W S Gilbert – one half of the famous light-operatic duo Gilbert & Sullivan.


Actor-Manager (and trained surgeon) Charles Wyndham arrives and swiftly establishes the Cri as one of London’s leading comedy venues before leaving to establish the nearby Wyndham’s Theatre in 1899.


The ‘electric’ eighteen-eighties

As electricity replaces gas in London’s street lamps, TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) enjoy a performance of Fourteen Days in March 1882. A year later, the Metropolitan Board of Works closes the gas-lit Cri as a fire risk, prompting the proprietors to carry out extensive alterations.


The Cri reopens with all risk of fire removed, electric lights and air-conditioning, including a skylight originally installed in the Criterion Dining Room.


Charles Wyndham delights audiences with 152 performances as famous thespian David Garrick in the play of the same name.


Life in the naughty nineties

Oscar Wilde sports a decadent green carnation at the nearby Café Royal, Sir Alfred Gilbert RA creates the bronze sculpture Anteros – better know to the world as ‘Eros’ and still proudly plucking his bow atop the Shaftesbury Memorial fountain in Piccadilly Circus.


Charles Wyndham celebrates 20 glorious years at the Cri.


Enter the Edwardians

As the 19th century closes and Queen Victoria approaches the end of a long and glorious reign, it’s all change at the Cri as the Edwardian era gathers pace.


Theatregoers mourn as the Cri declares itself ‘Closed for renovations’.


Piccadilly tube station opens, heralding the distant rumble of subterranean trains - a sound still familiar to Cri theatregoers.


Doing our bit for the boys

In a decade dominated by the Great War, playwright Walter W Ellis does his bit to raise the spirits by bringing A Little Bit of Fluff to the Cri for a three-year, 1,241 performance run.


Racing through the Roaring Twenties

As the Bright Young Things declare Piccadilly a permanent ‘party zone’ bright lights arrive in the form of electric billboards on the London Pavilion, first turned on in 1926 – and still a dazzling sight for audiences attending the Cri by night in the 21st century.


Depression? What depression?

In a decade overshadowed by economic crises and the shadow of war, the Cri refuses to surrender to depression.


John Gielgud (not yet a ‘Sir’) opens in Musical Chairs.


Rattigan takes the stage Playwright Terence Rattigan launches a glittering career with French Without Tears – a West End smash for three years.


We interrupt this performance to bring you the Blitz

The Cri remains ‘dark’ for the duration of World War II, requisitioned by the BBC as a subterranean radio studio.


Waiting for who?

As a bruised but unbroken London dusts itself off after the war, 1955 sees the Criterion at the heart of the postwar theatre movement with a production of Samuel Beckett’s iconic, absurdist play Waiting For Godot.


London swings in the age of Kitchen sinks

The swinging sixties bring a series of classic productions to the Cri, including kitchen sink dramas and a controversially camp Joe Orton Classic.


John Mortimer’s Lunch Hour, NF Simpson’s The Form and A Slight Ache by Harold Pinter light up the boards – stars include Emlyn Williams, Richard Briers and Wendy Craig.


An adaption of A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch runs for over 1000 performances.


Michael Bates and Kenneth Cranham camp things up in Joe Orton’s Loot – the Evening Standard’s Play of the Year.



A brush with bureaucrats The great and the good of the British Theatre – including John Gielgud, Diana Rigg, Warren Mitchell (pictured) and many others save the Cri from threatened ‘redevelopment’ by the Greater London Council.


1981 – 1983 Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!

Alfred Molina, Maggie Steed and Sylvester McCoy bring Dario Fo’s chaotic farce Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! to hilarious life.

1983 – 1989

What a Farce! And was there ever a better or longer-running farce than Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife – stars included Bernard Cribbins, Patrick Mower, Ernie Wise, Aimi Macdonald and Una Stubbs.



Sally Greene sets up the Criterion Theatre Trust to safeguard the Cri’s future. The Trust oversees a complete restoration, commissioning Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to refurbish the auditorium and front of house.


1995 Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood transfers from The Chichester Festival Theatre. Directed by Harold Pinter.


1996-2005 The Bard and the Bible

The Reduced Shakespeare Company delights audiences for almost a decade with their wonderfully concise versions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) and History of America and the Bible (abridged).

2006 A six year theatrical Hitch

Alfred Hitchcock provides the inspiration and Maria Aitkin the direction for Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of The 39 Steps – a marvelously inventive evening of comically-tinged suspense.



Like every long running production, the Cri introduces a cast of new characters as Stephen Fry arrives as Chairman of the Trustees.

“I couldn’t be more proud and pleased to take over the chair vacated by the inimitable Lord Attenborough. Between them he and Sally Greene have ensured that one of the absolute jewels of the West End is in a marvellous position to grow and flourish into the 21st Century. I am insanely excited and honoured to take up this new position.”


The 39 Steps ends it’s run just shy of it’s ninth birthday. Not quite a record breaker - but what a phenomenal run!


The Cri welcomes Mischief Theatre Company with the world premiere of their new play ‘The Comedy About A Bank Robbery’. Hot from the success of their ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ and Olivier Award winning ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’.


The year that did not go as planned as, alongside our fellow theatres, we cancelled performances and closed our doors on 16th March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  The Comedy About A Bank Robbery's last performance on the 15th March 2020 ended it's hugely successful run of four years - 1682 performances and 1682 thefts of that diamond!

We are hugely grateful for the assistance the Arts Council has given through The Cultural Recovery Grant Fund.  With no alternative source of income this invaluable grant funding will enable the Trust to reopen in the Spring of 2021 and has enabled us to re-launch in January 2021, initially online, the Criterion New Writing Programme.

We look forward to when we can re-open our doors, and hear laughter and applause once more echoing through our theatre.




Our back catalogue of shows

Opening with 100 performances of ‘Topsyturveydom’ by WS Gilbert & Alfred Cellier in 1874 to today’s hit show by Mischief Theatre Company ‘The Comedy About a Bank Robbery’.

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