A History Of The Lyceum Theatre

A brief history of London's Lyceum theatre, from its early origins to its refurbishment in 1996.

" The old Lyceum is no more, but in its place a new building adapted to every modern rquirement and catering to the wants of a new century." A view from 2000? No, these are the words of a newspaper reporter at the dawn of the twentieth century, as the Lyceum faced its latest reincarnation as a music hall. After lying derelict for many years the theatre formerly known as 'the Crown Jewel of the Strand' received a new lease of life when Apollo Leisure designated it their flagship theatre. Investing over £14 million in its restoration, the revamp culminated with the launch of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. Peter Longman, director of the Theatres Trust, wryly comments that as audiences approach the theatre they 'will enter through an early Victorian portico, sit down in an Edwardian auditorium and watch a performance on a stage that has been completely rebuilt for the 21st century.'

Throughout its history- dating back to 1772 when the Society of Arts founded ' a Room for Exhibitions and Concerts' near the current site- the Lyceum has displayed a chameleon tendency, adapting to changing fashions and needs admirably. Originally the theatre housed an eclectic range of entertainment, including a hot air balloon display, an animal circus and fireworks. In 1802 Madame Tussud's first exhibition of waxworks was held here; after 7 years which witnessed appearances by Grimaldi and Edmund Kean, the theatre became a temporary refuge for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane whose building had burned down. After the Lyceum suffered a similar fate in 1830, architect Samuel Beazley designed the new building and his magnificent portico still stands today. When rebuilding begun in 1995 it was thought that the pillars were rotten;happily this wasn't the case but 130 coats of paint had taken their toll.

In 1834 the Lyceum's output was hampered by restrictions prohibiting so-called minor theatres from staging drama without a musical interlude- a throwback to the early days following Charles II's restoration. When the 1834 Licensing Act removed these frustrating impediments, the theatre could present Shakespeare and the classics. A series of succesful extravaganzas were staged, but it was not until 1878 that the Lyceum took its first real steps towards greatness. It was in this year that Henry Irving took over the lease and Ellen Terry became his leading lady. This famous partnership had the two dubbed ' Lord and Lady of the Lyceum' and they presided over what evolved into an unofficial national theatre. Sadly in 1898 failing health forced Irving to relinquish control of the theatre, ending a scintillating era.

When no buyer could be found, in 1904 it was decided to demolish and rebuild the theatre. Bertie Crew designed the new building which was initially used for music hall. From 1909-38 the Melville Brothers ran a successful series of spectacular melodramas and in 1934 Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth saw their first pantomime here. But by 1939 the new owners- London City Council- wanted to replace the theatre with a traffic roundabout. Ellen Terry's great nephew John Gielgud brought the wheel full circle with 6 farewell performances of Hamlet, proclaiming " Long live the Lyceum!" The triumphal declaration seemed optimistic until the war intervened and demolition plans were shelved. In 1945 Mecca Ballrooms acquired the lease and today's raked auditorium was then a large dance floor that witnessed TV specials and rock concerts galore.

By 1986 the Lyceum was again empty but ten years later this sad decline was arrested. Apollo Leisure stepped in to the rescue in 1994, securing permission to restore the theatre to its former glory.Today, in addition to the imposing magnificence of the restored portico, the theatre boasts state of the art facilities and an opulent red and gold auditorium.With Jesus Christ Superstar and now The Lion King taking up residence, it seems the 'Lyceum roar' will once again echo in this celebrated theatre. Long may it continue.

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