The Criterion Theatre is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. General manager Fiona Callaghan talks about the venue’s fascinating past – and why it is always looking to the future

Words: Alice Carins

On March 21, 1874, the Criterion Theatre opened its doors for the very first time. Renowned for its programme of comedies, its elaborate interiors and its subterranean design, it soon became a staple of the West End theatre scene.

But its 150 years in business have involved plenty of drama – off the stage, as well as on it. Since its opening night, the theatre has weathered wars, withstood pandemics and survived forced closures. In 1992 the Criterion Theatre Trust was formed, a non-profit organisation which preserves the theatre buildings and organises outreach programmes to connect with new audiences, an important step towards securing its future.

“We turned 150 on the 21st March, and the audience spontaneously sang us Happy Birthday, which was very sweet” says Fiona Callaghan, general manager of the Criterion.

“But it doesn’t stop there. We’ve always known that we wanted to spend the whole of 2024 celebrating our 150th anniversary: it would take more than one day to remember all the famous productions and the fabulous artists that have appeared here over the years.”

As part of its sesquicentenary celebrations, the Criterion has introduced the “150TIX” initiative, which sees it give away 150 free tickets per week to young people under the age of 21.

“It’s really a celebration of what the Criterion Theatre Trust is all about” Fiona says. “Any money that we make through presenting the main show goes back into the theatre, education, and encouraging young people’s access to theatre and use of our wonderful buildings. Schools don’t always have the resources to make theatre accessible, and Drama isn’t seen as a priority subject. Taking the price of the ticket out of the equation can really help us to share theatre with audiences of the future.”

This forward-thinking approach is part of what has kept the Criterion thriving for so long, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Its 150 year history has been full of challenges that have been answered with creativity and innovation.

“When the theatre was first built, they had to keep closing it, because it was an underground venue, lit with gas lamps, and there were issues with ventilation” Fiona says.

In order to reopen, fresh air was pumped into the theatre to prevent audience members and performers alike being killed by toxic gas.

“But it does mean that today we have a fully air-conditioned space, which is unusual for buildings of this age. Then during the war years, almost all the theatres were closed down. Not the Criterion, though! Because the theatre is underground, we became a venue for the BBC to broadcast out of. Broadcasters used to sleep here, in rows of bunkbeds in the back of the stalls.”

The Criterion hosted morale-boosting comedies during the First World War, and was saved from redevelopment in the 70s by big name support from the likes of Diana Rigg and Robert Morley. Over its years of endurance against the odds, it has attracted a star-studded cast of famous faces, from John Gielgud to Hugh Griffith, and has staged plays by legendary playwrights like Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Terence Rattigan.  It’s currently home to Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York), a new musical romantic comedy set in the lead up to a wedding (runs until August 31).

“People love the Criterion” Fiona says. “It really is a very special place. It’s always been a comedy house, that’s part of its history and what makes it special, and also there’s the fact that it’s a small venue with just 600 seats, so it’s very intimate.”

Now that it has 150 successful years under its belt, the Criterion is once again turning its attention to the future. One of its key priorities are its free workshops, which introduce young people to a range of valuable theatre skills.

“It’s also about our future workforce!” says Fiona. “There are so many jobs in theatre – you don’t just have to be a performer. The Trust runs theatre skills workshops, which are free for people wanting to attend. We run a whole day workshop, teaching things like directing, lighting design, sound design and stage management. Then we have professional actors in, and the participants have the chance to  work a scene – they get to have a go on our lighting board and our sound and create whatever they want!

“Another thing we’re always interested in is encouraging new writing: our Criterion New Writing scheme turns 10 in September. We run free workshops, mentored courses, script development classes, and showcases each autumn. The future really is exciting for the world of theatre – that’s something we believe very strongly at the Criterion. There are new voices, new talents, new innovators to be discovered, and we hope that with our history we can give them a helping hand.”