The London Coliseum - Bonkers but Brilliant

At the top of the exterior of the London Coliseum, the 2,500 seat theatre near Trafalgar Square and home to English National Opera and English National Ballet, is a revolving globe. It is  part of the design by the theatre architect, Frank Matcham (1854-1920), whose work in London alone included the London Palladium, the Victoria Palace and the Hackney Empire.

The Coliseum Globe

If you had walked up from Charing Cross in 1904 towards St Martin’s Lane soon after the theatre’s opening, the globe would have caught your attention, alongside the rest of the Baroque edifice that presents itself as a fantasy on Ancient Rome. This exotic character pervaded the local area – the building next door apparently spent some years as a soldiers’ brothel.

The catching of attention was a deliberate marketing ploy by the theatre owner and impresario, Oswald Stoll (1866-1942), who commissioned Matcham’s design on what was an awkward triangular site. Stoll’s aim was to get the punters through the doors of a venue that opened as a variety house and continued thus for many years.

The “bonkers” is an affectionate adjective used by Martin, the guide who gave a  recent tour of the theatre as part of the Coliseum’s regular programme of guided visits. The great thing about having a guide (this view expressed in an entirely unbiased way) is that you get pictures drawn for you that would be difficult to evoke by yourself.

Thus the group was first shown the bust of Stoll’s mother, Adelaide (by sculptor Sir William Reid Dick), who managed the box office, but also the first floor balcony vantage point from which Stoll would count in the purchasers of tickets so as to double-check what the box office staff were doing.

Oswald Stoll's Balcony Vantage Point

A tour starts with an ascent to the third floor, with explanations at each level that flesh out the venue’s story – variety theatre through to World War II; partly used as a canteen for Air Raid Patrol workers during that war; home of American musicals after the war; three-screen cinema for seven years. Variety acts included chariot-racing, tightrope-walking over the auditorium, and even fireworks launched into the air above the audience – bonkers indeed, and a cue for heeby jeebies for a modern Health & Safety Officer.

The front-of-house atrium view from first floor up to the second floor

The chariot-racing was facilitated by Matcham’s design of a circular stage with three concentric rings. The thoughts of British TV viewers of a certain generation might go to the closing sequence of “Sunday Night at the London Palladium”, where the performers revolved and waved to the applauding audience. Maybe we could infer that the Coliseum stage (1904) was the design inspiration for the stage of the Palladium (1910).

The English National Opera (ENO) was the inspiration of the theatrical producer and manager Lilian Baylis (1874-1937). It started in 1968 as Sadler’s Wells Opera, and in 1974 became the ENO. The Company bought the freehold of the Coliseum for £12.8m in 1992. From 2000 the building went through an extensive restoration, with financial support from the National Heritage Lottery Fund as well as from various corporate, trust and individual donors. The theatre re-opened in 2004.

Lilian Baylis’s principles, under which ENO still operates, are that the Company’s offerings must be innovative, educational and affordable.

The pragmatism in resource allocation that affordability requires, is demonstrated by use of rehearsal space. Not for this Company the ability to rehearse all production elements at or near to site.

The choir rehearse at 3 Mills Studios in the depths of the East End (those who have done the misleadingly titled  Olympics walk will have passed it), and Martin pointed out that the only reason we could go into the first floor bar during daytime was because this was a Saturday and the space was not being used for understudy rehearsals.

And then from the third floor we entered the auditorium, the emptiness amplifying the vast space. Vertigo sufferers were immediately locked in their spot, as we gazed on what is a square, but by design trompe d’oeil, with domed central ceiling, appears to be a circle – we were back in Ancient Rome. The view even from the Upper Circle is good, albeit with not much depth in the seats so maybe ardour for the performance might be required to carry you through the longer shows.

The Stage, from the Upper Circle

Then it was off backstage, and as you stood in the lighting gallery towering over the stage, you started to appreciate the scale of the performance space, an 80ft wide stage and according to the theatre the largest proscenium arch in London, at 55 feet wide and  34 feet high.

The vertiginous view from the Lighting Gallery

At this point Martin explained another bonkers element of the Coliseum’s operation, the performance schedule. Surely to maximise profit you settle a production in and leave it for as long as it is commercially viable? Not for these chaps – ENO operates in repertory, and runs to a bewildering programme of overnight set moves out, with building of new set during the following day for the evening’s performance of another show.

The set-building was in evidence as the tour went round, with a surprising absence of swearing as some heavy moving was being done, although the group was requested at one point to stop using flash photography as it was interfering in focussing the lights for the evening’s show.

Backstage had an unsurprising utilitarian feel, although it was a reassuringly divaesque piece of information that the more important was your role as performer, the closer your dressing room was to the stage. Martin painted the delightful picture of the Geisha Girl chorus from Madam Butterfly sitting in the canteen directly under the stage, eating their tuna sandwiches.

The view from the Orchestra Pit

It is said that every theatre has its ghosts, and the Coliseum weighs in with Meg the Tea Lady, and the World War I solider in love with a showgirl, who returned to “sit” in G8 in the Upper Circle.

But it is the images of the days of early variety theatre that stand out. With four shows each performance day, the 2pm repeated at 6pm and the 3pm repeated at 9pm, there was a constant coming and going. Gentlemen could repose in between shows in the Baronial Smoking Hall at basement level; ladies could take cream tea on the second floor; your appetite for being entertained would be whetted by the sight of a tank of tropical fish in the foyer.

Even the revolving globe has a story – for a long time until the 2004 re-opening, the authorities barred its revolving, through fear of danger for low-flying aircraft. One would have thought that the low-flying aircraft were themselves more of a danger.

So bonkers the Coliseum may be in several respects, but it has an eccentric brilliance....and it was a brilliant tour.

The author is a City of London and City of Westminster Guide, and former law firm partner, who runs guided walks in the City and in Westminster. For more information see tabs.