There are a few Lyceum theatres – Sheffield, Crewe, Oldham – but the one to mention is London’s Lyceum. It’s old.
Originating in 1765 the Lyceum had several incarnations that don’t fit with modern theatres, including life as a chapel and hosting Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. When it was managed by Samuel Arnold (son of the composer of the same name), he had it refitted from a variety theatre to a ‘proper’ theatre. Unfortunately he wasn’t granted a patent to perform spoken dramas. Instead, he leased the building to Philip Astley, the ‘father of the modern circus’. Astley with his wife put on trick horse riding displays. Hard to imagine inside a theatre. He’s famed for integrating acts, such as clowns, acrobats and music, plus sword fights and tight rope walking.
The Lyceum finally got its license in 1809. Then in 1830 it burnt down. (Theatres were dangerous places!) The present theatre, which opened under the name Theatre Royal Lyceum and English Opera House, championed English opera rather than Italian. Everything changed again in the late 1800s when Sir Henry Irving appeared on the stage. For two hundred nights he played Hamlet, bringing Shakespeare to the Lyceum stage, and ‘proper’ drama, which would have pleased Samuel Arnold. In 1878 Irving took over the management, booting out the existing the manager, Mrs Bateman. He appointed Bram Stoker as his manager, the guy wrote Dracula during his spell at the theatre. Was Irving his inspiration?
In 1904 the theatre was rebuilt in a rich Rococo style and reverted to variety musical hall acts in an attempt to outdo the Palladium and Coliseum. The theatre was mothballed in 1939, a sad change of circumstance that is currently happening across the world to theatres and cinemas.
After the Second World War, the Lyceum was saved from demolition and reopened in 1945 as a ballroom, then in the 60s and 70s it staged pop concerts. Finally in 1996 after restoration it has once more become a theatre with a substantial orchestra pit reinstated, and since 1999 it has been the home to the musical The Lion King.
Theatres have to be pretty good at reinventing themselves, changing with trends, altering to accommodate audiences’ demands, rebuilding and restoring. I had no idea when setting out on this theme to what extent a ‘theatre’ is actually a series of buildings. What often survives is the frontage, the style of an era, and the hidden things of the back stage.
(And not just frontages. The Lyric opened in 1888 and is the oldest surviving theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (heart of the West End). Designed by CJ Phipps it mostly staged comic operas. Even after constant reworkings, the Lyric retains many original features, of which one stands out. It still uses water to operate the iron safety curtain. The water is pumped from the River Thames for the hydraulics and these days the pump works by electricity, but there is a manual one for emergencies. Nice to know.)