This guide to the London Coliseum comes from 2018.
The London Coliseum is one of the capital’s grandest and most architecturally stunning theatres. The building, home of the English National Opera, is renowned for its eclectic mix of opera, ballet and musicals, with the odd rock concert thrown in for good measure.
Designed as a “people’s palace of entertainment”, the theatre opened in 1904 as the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties. With a stunning design by architect Frank Matcham, the venue was the brainchild of impresario Oswald Stoll who dreamt of creating the grandest music hall in the land.
In its 100+ year history, the Coliseum has played host to a dazzling variety of productions from opera classics to bold experiments. In that period, the venue has also served as a cinema as well as a venue for pantomimes and stage musicals.
In the last few years, under artistic director Daniel Kramer, the theatre has gained a reputation for its ambitious programme of events. Kramer’s tenure as director saw the Coliseum host an intoxicating mix of returning classics (Porgy and Bess, La Traviata) as well as edgier, more experimental productions (Mask of Orpheus, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitehall).
The American has certainly not been without his critics in his three year stint at the helm of the iconic theatre, but Kramer’s tenure has ensured that the Coliseum is known as much for its daring, experimental productions as for its Roster of familiar classics.
If you are thinking of visiting the theatre, then here is our definitive guide to the London Coliseum.
The Coliseum is situated in the heart of the West End in elegant St Martin’s Lane, Westminster.
In the Area
The theatre is extremely central with Leicester Square Tube Station literally steps away and tourist attractions like Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, Leicester Square and Covent Garden all within five minutes.
At the centre of the building is the vast 2,359-seat auditorium, which remains as spectacular today as it was when it first opened. The London Coliseum’s performance space overflows with decorative flushes and ornamentation with a plethora of classically inspired motifs designed by architect Frank Matcham.
These grand flourishes compliment the building’s elegant baroque style and ensure that the Coliseum makes a suitably awe inspiring impression on all who visit the venue.
In contrast to the Royal Opera House, all productions at the theatre are performed in English which can prove extremely helpful to those who are unfamiliar with some of the language
The London Coliseum is a magnificent example of the baroque style of architecture that was so popular in the. The style made a brief revival at the end of the 19th century and we have legendary theatre architect Frank Matcham (he was also responsible for the previous incarnation of Sadler’s Wells) to thank for the building.
The theatre were awarded listed status in 1960 with English Heritage noting the “exuberant Free Baroque ambitious design, the Edwardian “Theatre de Luxe of London” with richly decorated interiors and a vast and grandiose auditorium.” The theatre is crowned by a particularly eye catching revolving globe. The globe, driveshaft and mechanism weigh a quite staggering five tonnes with the options of varying the speed of the globe’s rotation.
The Coliseum’s crowning glory has not always been so gratefully welcomed however. Designed to rotate perpetually on its axis, the globe soon fell foul of Westminster Council, who decreed the fixture a safety risk. The council decided that the large sphere could be a danger to low flying aircraft and forbid the theatre from setting it in motion!
How it All Began
The theatre was the brainchild of two men: impresario Oswald Stoll and architect Frank Matcham. Stoll wished to create the finest music hall anyone had ever seen and Matcham, who specialised in designing theatres, was only too happy to oblige.
Aided by his industrious mother, Adelaide, Stoll dreamt of creating a “people’s palace of entertainment” and to that end, the theatre’s motto was “Pro Bono Publico” – for the public good. He was careful to chose a programme that paid equal respect to music hall (then popular amongst the working classes) and variety theatre.
The London Coliseum opened on the 24th December 1904 as the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties. For the first few years, it was all hands on deck. Adelaide Stoll ran the Box Office while her son stood on the first floor balcony individually counting paying guests.
Despite the best efforts of all involved, the theatre was a failure and within two short years the so called people’s palace had closed its doors. Mercifully, the closure was a short one and the Coliseum was open again the following year.
Americana, Pantomimes and Cinema
The popularity of the theatre gradually grew in the next couple of decades with the venue playing host to a popular long running comedy, the White Horse Inn and a series of successful pantomimes. The building served as a canteen for Air Raid Patrol workers during the 2nd World War and once the war had ended, a spate of hit American musicals (Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate and Guys and Dolls amongst them) ensured the institution’s continued success.
The English National Opera
No guide to the London Coliseum would be complete without mentioning the English National Opera. The then named Sadler’s Wells Opera Company moved to the Coliseum in 1968. The company had been searching for a larger venue for their performances and they finally settled on the theatre in St Martin’s Lane. In 1974, the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company changed its name to the English National Opera Company to reflect its importance to the practice of opera in the United Kingdom. Twenty four years after moving to the Coliseum, the English National Opera finalised arrangements to purchase the freehold of the building for the sum of £12.8 million pounds.
An extensive restoration of the building began in 2000 with financial help from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The restored Coliseum re-opened in 2004.
Guide to the London Coliseum Dress Code
The English National Opera does not operate a dress code. Although patrons are free to dress up for events and individual events may operate their own dress code, otherwise, visitors are free to dress how they want.
The institution does offer some advice to visitors, however. The website for the ENO says “Smart casual to high end couture, it’s your night and we want you to have a great time – all we ask is that if you have large headwear that you remove it for the performance. If it’s cold outside it’s a good idea to leave your coat and any large bags in the free cloakroom for your comfort in the auditorium”.
• The first theatre with lifts to all levels
• One of the first theatres to have electrical lighting
• During the 2nd World War, Winston Churchill gave a speech from the stage.
• Being the home of the English National Opera Company
• In 1992 ENO bought the freehold of the building for £12.8m
• Staging a full blown chariot race on the stage in the main auditorium in its early years.
For the superstitious:
There is a bust of the founder Oswald Stoll’s mother Adelaide in the foyer. It is said that if you donate a pound, stand in front of her and spin three times, you will always see great theatre.
If you’d like a human guide to the London Coliseum then this is possible. The Coliseum offers a regular schedule of tours with events throughout the year. The tours take in the main auditorium including the balcony, upper glassed terraces and revolving stage as well as the mess of backstage staircases, the Old Gentleman’s Baronial Smoking Hall and some of the theatre’s many private rooms.
The theatre also offers private tours for interested parties. For information about the tours or to make a booking, please contact the Box Office on 02078459300 or email email@example.com
Tours of the London Coliseum last approximately 90 minutes and each tour costs £10 per person (£8 concessions).
No self respecting guide to the London Coliseum would be complete without mentioning ghosts. Every West End theatre is said to have spirits but by the sound of things, the Coliseum has more than its fair share. Since 1904 the building has reputably been haunted by:
- a love sick World War I solider
- Merry Meg the tea lady
- an avid theatre goer who just wouldn’t go home!
The Coliseum has served as a movie theatre at various points during its history but in June 1961 the venue was leased to MGM as a substitute for the Empire Leicester Square while it underwent refurbishment.
During its stint as a cinema, the theatre played host to Gone With the Wind, the World Premiere of Bob Hope’s Bachelor in Paradise and the UK premiere of the epic King of Kings.
Seating in the theatre is separated into four sections: Stalls, Dress Circle, Upper Circle and Balcony. The most expensive seating is in the centre of the stalls; however, side stall seating is often just as good and half the price.
Seats in the Upper Circle and Balcony are cheaper but the views can be restricted () and they are not recommended to those suffering from vertigo or those with long legs. In contrast, the Dress Circle can often be relied upon for bargains and the leg room is much more generous.
The London Coliseum offers a number of ‘Secret Seats’ for each performance. These seats can be substantially cheaper than regular tickets. The seats can only be booked online and availability is limited so you need to book as early as possible.
Secret Seats are unallocated advance tickets. They cost cost £30 with your seat allocated 72 hours before the show. Seats could be anywhere, from the Stalls to the Dress Circle, which means that Secret Seats can offer incredible bargains on the cost of regular price tickets.
Well, we hope you have enjoyed our guide to the London Coliseum. For more information on the venue, please click here.
For information on other great theatres in London, please click here.