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London Theater: Not Just for Grownups

Discover a wealth of theater opportunities for children on your next London family vacation.

 

Imagine giant 15-foot puppets dancing across the stage and the glint of gold lamé costumes in 1001 Nights. Picture Romeo swooping through the air to catch Juliet’s hands off the trapeze in a Shakespearean circus. These are just a few scenes from plays I’ve seen with children at London’s Young Vic theater, one of the city’s best spots for children to experience the joys of the stage.

If your family is visiting London and wants to join in the fun, check out our insider’s guide to the best theaters for different ages (rough guidelines only), along with advice and tips from local parents.

Theater for Kids Aged 0-3 

Need to know:

  • Keep it short and simple. Running times will make or break you: 30 minutes is best, 45 is doable. If the story line sounds vague, and the words “imaginative” or “magical world” are used too often, consider yourself warned.
  • Keep it small. Large spaces can be intimidating for this age—aim for the size of a large living room with mats or carpets.
  • Interactive is a must. Nothing bores a toddler more than not being able to move. While sitting down/standing up/waving props may be a bit tedious, think of it as one less visit to the gym.

Best venue: Polka Adventure Theatre in Wimbledon Polka’s Adventure Theatre, a small studio that puts on short works like a 35-minute ecologically-minded puppet show of Three Billy Goats Gruff, ticks all the boxes above. Estelle Guy, who has taken her sons (now 4 and 3 years old) to the theater an average of 10 times a year, found the Polka an ideal training ground. “The children are very close to the actors, which helps in capturing and holding their attention. But at the same time, they are learning that they have to sit and listen and watch—rather than run around like nutters. My sons both understand the theater environment now, and I can relax knowing they won’t act up.” 

Theater for Kids Aged 3-7

Need to know:

  • Familiarity is good. Children this age enjoy story lines they know through books or television. They also seem to enjoy new twists on an old tale.
  • Timing. You know your child’s high and low energy cycles. Many theaters offer more than one show a day—aim for that magic time between mania and slumping.

Best venue: Little Angel Theatre, Islington. This beautiful, atmospheric puppet theatre venue seats just 100 and puts on a wide range of shows for children—fairy tales, adaptations of children's books, Shakespeare and original work. And the puppets are just as wide-ranging, from table-top and shadow puppetry to marionettes and body puppets.

London mom Lynne Melbourne attended many shows at the Angel with her daughter from the ages of 3 to 6. “It’s an utterly charming place, and she loved every single show she saw. There’s such a variety on offer, you’re sure to find something that suits your child.” The theater also runs puppet making workshops.

Theater for Kids Aged 7-12

Need to know:

  • Noise, action and oomph. You can’t really go wrong with that combo—something even Shakespeare respected

Best venue: Young Vic, London. The Young Vic is dedicated to giving a voice to young directors and writers, as well as supporting theater for young audiences. Winner of countless awards—including architectural awards following its makeover—the Young Vic has productions that will challenge and delight you as much as your children. Unreserved seating is on benches around a circular stage; there are no bad views so don’t worry about queuing. If there’s anything that sounds remotely interesting to your family—go!

Theatre for Kids Aged 12+

Need to know:

  • Think theater-lite. Musicals and mysteries are great entrees; if these don’t appeal, be adventurous and follow your child’s lead.
  • Consult, consult, consult. At this age if they haven’t been involved, they’re unlikely to go. I’ve found the most accurate reviews tend to be from Time Out and The Guardian newspaper (online at arts.guardian.co.uk).

Your venues will run the gamut of London’s West End and fringe theater. As tickets for the best seats range from £30-£60 (US$60-$120), look for discounts such as theater/hotel packages. You can also buy half-price tickets to many same day shows at the ticket booth on the south side of Leicester Square. It sells only top-price tickets, so it’s not always as cheap as it sounds.

Seasonal

If you’re lucky enough to visit London during Kid’s Week (Aug. 15-29, 2008, www.kidsweek.co.uk), there is an array of free activities and events, from dancing to stage fighting to backstage tours. Children ages 5 to 16 go free to West End shows with a paying adult.

And should you visit during December to early January, don’t miss a panto (pantomime) at the Old Vic theater. The panto is a much-loved British institution: a farce with audience participation in time-honored fashion (“He’s behind you!”).

Contact Details

Polka Theatre: 240 The Broadway, Wimbledon SW19 (south London), tel: 020-8543-4888, www.polkatheatre.com. (Wimbledon is just 10-15 minutes on the train from Waterloo station).

Little Angel Puppet Theatre: 14 Dagmar Passage, Islington N1 (north London), tel: 020-7226-1787, www.littleangeltheatre.com.

Young Vic: 66 The Cut, London SE1, tel: 020-7222-1234, www.youngvic.org.

Old Vic: The Cut, London SE1, tel: 0870-060- 6628, www.oldvictheatre.com.

Leicester Square half price ticket booth: south end of Leicester Square, London WC2. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; must purchase in person and cash only.

For more venues and shows for kids, check out www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk.


Destinations: London

Themes: Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment


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