Pre 1895: The first Lyric
Plans for a theatre in Hammersmith were first put forward in 1886 by a local businessman, Charles Cordingly and it existed as a much smaller venue from 1888, on Bradmore Grove in Hammersmith.
1895: The New Lyric Opera House
In 1895, the Lyric as we now know it was opened with the name: The New Lyric Opera House.
The opening of the building was accompanied by an address from the famous actress, Lille Langtry, and was followed by a performance of a one-act play, Dora.
The Lyric has been performing Pantomimes since conception. John M. East, the Lyric’s General Manager from 1895, put on at least 10 Pantomimes during his time heading up the buildings programming (until 1904), which he wrote and produced himself. The first recorded Panto was Cinderella in 1897.
1904: ‘The blood and flea pit’
The Lyric suffered following the departure of John. M East in 1904, who produced 361 dramas and performed in over 100 performances during his tenure. At this time the theatre was known locally as ‘the blood and flea pit’.
The decline in audience numbers was not Lyric specific, rather an industry wide issue. Pre-war audiences had stopped attending the theatre as much, and had instead turned their attention to the Motion Picture industry. By the time the First World War arrived in 1914, the Lyric was closed more often than open.
“After an unsuccessful attempt to revive a stock company following John East’s departure, the Lyric became a receiving house for touring companies.” – John M. East (Jr.)
1918: The Playfair Era
John M. East, taken from The Stage (3 Sept. 1970) said:
“In 1918, Nigel Playfair took a long lease. In the 1920s, productions at the Lyric made theatrical history. Edith Evans was Millamant in The Way of the World. Marie Tempest played in Midsummer Madness, and Ellen Terry made her final appearance on any stage.”
1945: Company of Four and H. M. Tennent
Following the departure of Nigel Playfair in 1932, the Lyric’s output did not decrease, with notable productions from Ballet Rambert.
Following the war, ownership changed hands once again. This time the Company of Four (H.M Tennent Company) took over the building, tasked with a brief to produce new plays with new creatives – and to provide jobs for actors returning from overseas following the war.
“The most important phase in the Lyric’s history began with J. Baxter Somervillt’s sublease, dating from 1944. For the decade that a Tennent company held an under-lease, the Lyric became Britain’s most exciting experimental theatre. The early work of Peter Brook and a host of other notable productions […] cast lists would fill a “Who’s Who”: Peggy Ashcroft, Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde, Dora Bryan, Ian Carmichael, John Gielgud, Alec Guiness, Trevor Howard, Flora Robson, Paul Scofield, Dorothy Tutin, Peter Ustinov, Emlyn Williams, Donald Wolfit and Irene Worth.” – John M. East in The Stage, 03 Sept 1970,
In 1949, the Lyric’s production of The Seagull – with Paul Scofield - transferred to St James’. The very same year, John Gielgud directs a J.M Barrie and Chrisopher Fry double bill with Richard Burton in the cast.
1950s: The birth of the Royal Exchange & The Birthday Party
The 1950s saw many big names perform. Marie Rambert brought her repertoire of ballet, John Gielgud led a season, the London debut of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party - a commercial and critical failure. In 1959, the 59 Theatre Company arrived, when they leave, they create the Manchester Royal Exchange.
1960s: The Lyric is sold to the highest bidder
In the early to mid-60s, the Lyric went through a renovation. Audiences, especially local audiences, were attending the theatre frequently enough for sustained success. The Shepherd’s Bush Gazette even wrote “[the Lyric is] a must visit in the Metropolis”.
But despite the success early in the decade, the Lyric noticed dwindling numbers as the 60s went by. Eventually, the building went up for auction in 1965. Three years later, it was sold.
According to some sources, the auction was won by “Mr. Richards”, who brought the theatre for £26,000. But there were complications… the council also thought they’d won the building in the same auction, for the same price. As a result, the Lyric went back on sale and was eventually won by the council for £37,500.
Everything pointed towards the closure of the theatre – and in 1969 demolition of the building began… but not the theatre. Interestingly, John M. East’s written piece in The Stage (and other West London papers) was published on 03 Sept.1970. By then, his aim was not to stop the demolition of the building but to save the interior of the theatre, East wrote:
“Local Government states ‘the Minister accepts the Inspectors recommendation that he should permit the demolition of the building’. This is subject to the fibrous plasterwork of the auditorium being taken down and stored and where that is impossible, moulds shall be made and stored.”
1970s: A decade long battle
The demolition started in 1969 and a local campaign began to save the Lyric. The Vice-Chairman of the Hammersmith Society said “a revived Lyric, because of its acknowledged merits, has a far greater chance of making the new Hammersmith Centre a landmark in London.” The campaign was a success and the Lyric was reopened by The Queen and His Royal Highness, Prince Phillip in 1979.
1979: Bill Thomley and Michael Blakemore
The newly reopened Lyric’s first Artistic Director, Bill Thomley, appointed Michael Blakemore as the resident director, Blakemore’s first play being Michael Frayn’s Make and Break. Sadly, due to ill health Bill had to resign from post, leaving Michael to oversee all productions.
1981: Peter James
Artistic Director Peter James led the company until 1992. Notable productions included David Freeman’s production of Morte d’Arthur performed in four parts over two evenings and the Olivier award winning production of The House of Bernarda Alba with Glenda Jackson and the debut of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off with Patricia Routledge. The Studio also continued to thrive with a season curated by Anne Lambton.
Photo: Donald Cooper/Photostage
1994: Neil Bartlett, Simon Mellor & Sue Storr
‘Our artistic policy was simple; make beautiful shows, with brilliant people - and keep the tickets cheap.’ Neil Bartlett & Simon Mellor. Neil Bartlett became Artistic Director in 1994, along with Simon Mellor as Administrative Producer + Sue Storr as Chief Executive.
Bartlett directed productions of classic British plays, foreign classics, which he translated or adapted, and a series of notable Christmas shows, including his adaptation of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol.
Sue Storr in this period oversaw the development of local partnerships in support of the theatre’s capital development to create new education and rehearsal spaces and to relocate the theatre’s entrance from King Street onto a newly built public Square for West London - Lyric Square. She also worked closely with a number of producing consortia to present a wide range of International work.
2004: David Farr & Jessica Hepburn
‘The Lyric for me was about two things. First it was about working together. The whole spirit of the place was collaboration…Second it was about young people. My incredible Executive Director, Jessica Hepburn, drove a remarkable campaign to bring art & young people in the community into direct contact with work.’ David Farr
When Neil Bartlett and Simon Mellor left the Lyric in 2004, David Farr and Jessica Hepburn replaced them. The same year, saw the completion of the Lyric capital project – with the entrance moved to Lyric Square.
The refurb created a new ticket office, street level cafe, and rehearsal and workshop spaces. The project was designed by the internationally acclaimed architect, Rick Mather.
David Farr invited many companies to collaborate with the Lyric including Vesturport, Kneehigh, Filter, Frantic Assembly, Gecko, Vanishing Point, and individuals like Lemn Sissay, Mark Ravenhill, Sophie Woolley and Lisa Hammond. Notable productions included Metamorphosis, Ramayana, Angels in America, The Bacchae, the stage adaptation of Absolute Beginners, the 50th anniversary revival of Pinter’s The Birthday Party and David Rosenberg’s Hitchcock style thriller Contains Violence, which was performed in windows opposite the theatre with audiences using earphones and binoculars. The theatre also began to establish its reputation for pioneering work with young people across West London, providing pathways into theatre for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2009: Sean Holmes & Jessica Hepburn
From spring 2009, Sean Holmes took over at the Lyric with Jessica Hepburn continuing as Executive Director until 2015. Holmes’ reintroduced Panto, other notable productions included The Seagull, Saved,Three Kingdoms, Ghost Stories, Sarah Kane’s Blasted and the Secret Theatre project.
2015: The Reuben Foundation Wing
In 2015, Rick Mather Architects completed a new re-development. This expansion allowed the Lyric to build a new cultural & education space – the Reuben Foundation Wing. Sean Holmes’ production of Bugsy Malone reopened the theatre to great critical and audience acclaim.
Following the reopening of the theatre, Jessica Hepburn left the Lyric, with Sian Alexander becoming the new Executive Director in October 2015.
2018: Theatre Refurbishment
The Frank Matcham Main House is refurbished for the first time in 40 years restoring and redecorating the plasterwork. Plus a full refurbishment and rewiring of the Studio Theatre to create a flexible and fully LED theatre space.
2019: Rachel O’Riordan & Sian Alexander
Rachel O’Riordan joined the Lyric as Artistic Director in February 2019, with her first programmed season beginning in September 2019 with Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of A Doll’s House.