Redeveloped in the nineteenth century as a restaurant, tavern and basement theatre on the site of a former coaching inn, the Criterion opened for dinner in 1873 and for drama the following year. A WS Gilbert offering entitled ‘Topsyturveydom’ was among the early offerings, followed by a period under Charles Wyndham during which the theatre acquired a reputation for light comedies. Wyndham left in 1899 to open his own theatre and soon afterwards the Metrpolitan Board of Works condemned the theatre on safety grounds. Extensive refurbishment followed, including the installation of electric lights, and by the 1920s and 1930s the venue was playing host to the likes of John Gielgud and Sybil Thorndike in work by Novello and Rattigan.
During the war the theatre was requisitioned by the BBC and afterwards its repertoire became more adventurous, with Beckett, Fo and Pinter performed there. But the 1970s saw the Criterion in jeopardy when the entire site was proposed for redevelopment. A high-profile campaign was launched to save the theatre and its future was eventually secured. It closed its doors from 1989 to 1992 and – after remodelling which saw part of the building converted into what is now Lillywhite’s sports store – it reopened with a performance by Ennio Marchetto. The Reduced Shakespeare Company were residents for a further nine years and since 2006 the theatre has housed the successful Hitchcock spoof 'The 39 Steps’.