UNICORN SCARECROW, UNICORN SCARE?
It was a real pleasure to see a recent performance of SCARECROW, a gentle journey though the seasons, seen through the eyes of the scarecrow hero.
Puppet crows, a clever simple set and two brilliant actors, Mick Jasper and Iain Armstrong, directed with flair by Rosamunde Hutt, contribute to a sensitive one-act play of warm integrity, watched with rapt attention by its young audience. The play uses language and rhyme with admirable economy.
It is written by Mike Kenny, one of our finest children’s playwrights – he has recently had huge and deserved success with his adaptation of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN.
This small-scale production is part of the encouraging explosion of theatre for young children that has taken place in recent years. Entertaining and educational, imagination-triggering and theatrical, this play has been touring for some time. I saw it in the Clore Studio at Unicorn Theatre on the South Bank. Little did I realise that a few days later, what looked like a rather alarming story would appear about Unicorn in The Stage.
You may remember that Unicorn was founded in the late 40s by the indomitable Caryl Jenner, whose dream to have a purpose-built children’s theatre in London was only partially realised when Unicorn leased the Arts Theatre, but had to bring in grown-up shows in the evening, sometimes compromising the design of children’s productions.
Nevertheless, I have very happy memories of adapting and directing MEG AND MOG SHOW there five times in the 80s and, together with Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, Unicorn kept children’s theatre in the limelight. And when the then Artistic Director, Tony Graham led the triumphant bid to achieve Caryl Jenner’s dream, a beautiful new theatre on the South Bank was the result. I was privileged to be the writer of the first production in 2005, an adaptation of Philippa Pearce’s classic novel, TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN.
So what is the ‘alarming story’? Well, the new Artistic Director of Unicorn, Purni Morell, presumably with the backing of the Arts Council and the theatre board, was quoted in The Stage as saying that she is trying to enlarge the venue’s ‘reach out to older teenager and adult audiences.’ She says, ‘I think of Unicorn as a theatre and not necessarily as a theatre within the children’s sector.’
Does this mean that we are in danger of losing our first purpose-built London children’s theatre? Surely not. But might the dedicated team of fundraisers, whose efforts got the theatre built, see this as a slap in the face? And have we children’s theatre practitioners lost our flagship building? Hopefully not. Am I wrong to be worried that Unicorn might become a multi-purpose building in which children are not at the heart? Is it selfish to expect that Unicorn should be one of the very few theatres in the UK where children come first? And how would Caryl Jenner feel about it?
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