The Coliseum was designed by theatre architect Frank Matcham and commissioned by Sir Oswald Stoll, who both set out to create the largest and most lavish ‘palace of entertainment’ that there had ever been. It opened in 1904 and was sold as a variety theatre, presenting higher-brow music hall-style entertainment to the public. The inaugural performance on the 24 December 1904 was a variety bill that put a full-scale chariot race on a revolving stage!
Sir Oswald Stoll was born in Australia but moved to England with his mother after his father’s death and took his stepfather’s last name. His interest in theatre came from helping his mother manage theatres. Stoll was a philanthropist: he founded the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation in Fulham, which continues today to house disabled ex-servicemen and women and provide support for veterans.
Seating 2,359 people, the London Coliseum is one of the largest theatres in London. Throughout the Second World War, the theatre became the canteen for air raid patrol workers and Winston Churchill himself gave a speech from the stage. Through the post-war period, the theatre became the home for big American musicals from Broadway, then in 1961 it became a cinema for seven years until eventually re-opening as the home of Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and named the London Coliseum in 1974.
The theatre had its named changed in 1931 from the London Coliseum to just the Coliseum Theatre until 1968, when it re-opened as The London Coliseum, home of Sadler’s Wells Opera. In 1974 Sadler’s Wells became English National Opera and the Company bought the freehold of the building for £12.8m in 1992. The theatre underwent a complete and detailed restoration from 2000, which was supported by National Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, The National Lottery, Arts Council England and a number of generous trust and individual donors. The gigantic auditorium and foyer were returned to their original opulent Edwardian style.
The London Coliseum has the widest proscenium arch in London: 55 feet wide and 34 feet high. The stage is 80 feet wide and was one of the first theatres to have electric lighting. It was built with a revolving stage – although this was rarely used – which consisted of three concentric rings and was 75 feet across.
While opera remains the main focus of the London Coliseum Theatre, it has hosted various other kinds of entertainment throughout its long history. Opening in 1931, a musical comedy The White Horse Inn ran for 651 performances.
Today, the London Coliseum Theatre retains many of its original features and is a Grade II-listed building. It has twice hosted the Royal Variety Performances in recent years, as well as a host of classic ballets and operas. 2012 saw a vast selection of productions, including versions of the controversial modern opera The Death of Klinghoffer, Coppelia, Madam Butterfly and the huge opera Caligula.