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Lyceum Theatre history

Designed by the famous theatre architect Bertie Crewe, the Grade 2 listed Lyceum Theatre opened its doors on 31st December 1904 to usher in a brand new year.

The theatre you see today isn't actually the original. A theatre existed on the site way back in 1722, designed by James Payne. Until the arrival of gas lamps theatre had been watched by candlelight, which was highly atmospheric yet horribly dangerous. The first theatre on the site was demolished to make way for a new theatre designed by Samuel Beazley, which opened in 1815 as the first ever gas-lit venue in London.

Mozart’s wonderful opera Cosi Fan Tutti enjoyed its English premier at the theatre in 1823. But disaster stuck in 1830, when a fire raged through the building and burned it to the ground. Fortunately Samuel Beazley was asked once again to design the latest generation Lyceum Theatre. His second grand design opened on 4th July 1834 to much acclaim, with its impressive ancient Greek-style façade and vast three-tiered auditorium.

A leading actor of the day, one Henry Irving, is synonymous with the Lyceum Theatre, having dazzled audiences with a legendary performance in The Bells and with his title role in Hamlet during 1874. The same year Irving took control of the theatre and ended up managing the venue for the next 21 years. Irving eventually had to give up his position as manager of the Lyceum, plagued by financial problems and health issues. His final performance on the grand Lyceum stage he loved so much took place in 1902, when he wowed audiences as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Faced with strict new health and safety regulations, the theatre’s next owners chose to rebuild the entire place from the ground up rather than undergo expensive alterations. And the theatre-loving architect Bertie Crewe set out to create the building that still stands today. Look closely and you'll notice how Crewe cleverly kept the original Greek-style façade, simply building his brand new theatre behind it.

In 1939, a major redevelopment of the area threatened the theatre with demolition. The threat came so close that they even auctioned off the furniture and fixtures. But the venue was saved in the nick of time by the outbreak of World War Two and demolition plans were shelved. The theatre remained empty and unused until 1945 when it was taken over by Mecca Ltd and re-opened as a ballroom-dancehall.

During the '60s and '70s the venue became home to pop concerts for household name music acts including The Who, Bob Marley, U2 and Culture Club. 1985 saw the National Theatre transfer its production of The Mystery Plays to the Lyceum, adapted by poet and playwright Tony Harrison.

In 1994 the lease was bought by Apollo Leisure and a complete refurbishment was undertaken, returning the theatre to its former splendour, as opulent and dramatic as ever. The first production in the refurbished venue hit the stage in 1996, a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

Disney’s musical theatre re-telling of The Lion King made the Lyceum Theatre its home in 1999 and continues to delight audiences from all over the world.