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Encore Mgazine


Feb 2011

‘Children’s theatre is the Cinderella of the theatre world’ is a sentence often used to describe the problems faced by this sector in terms of funding, profile and status.  I have used it myself when attempting to explain why theatre for children is often undervalued by the powers that be, by the general public, and within our own profession.

It has also struck me as ironic that CINDERELLA is the title that year after year probably attracts more people into our theatres than any other.  Most theatres eagerly look forward to its return every four or five years, because audience figures and box office revenue regularly prove it to be the most popular pantomime subject of them all.

It is also true that for decades theatres that showed little interest in catering for children nevertheless saw them, in school parties or within family groups, as vital annual Christmas money-makers, helping support the running costs of the building for the rest of the year.  Not just CINDERELLA, of course, but all the pantomimes and seasonal attractions designed to have the widest possible appeal.

These days, as I have pointed out before, the situation is somewhat improved.  Many theatres, both commercial and subsidised, recognise that children deserve their own productions throughout the year and that though seat prices need to be lower than for adult shows, many productions for children yield satisfactory box office results, as well as help develop future adult audiences. 

Proof of this more enlightened attitude can be seen in the wide range of children’s and family product on offer all around the country.  This Christmas it is most noticeable in and around London.  The usual big commercial pantomimes are taking place in Wimbledon, Hackney, Richmond and Croydon, but just look at the other theatres who have also decided to attract the family audience.  The National, the Young Vic, Hampstead Theatre and, most unusually, perhaps, the Royal Court are offering exciting children’s productions.  The Soho Theatre has BAGPUSS, and, in the West End, shows for young children are sitting on top of adult productions at the Criterion (PEPPA PIG), the Garrick (THE GRUFFALO) and the Ambassadors (THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS).  Producers and theatre owners must see this as making commercial sense.  At the Bloomsbury, my adaptation of Dahl’s GEORGE’S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE is playing a six week season.

Throughout the year there is more children’s touring product than ever before.  The Arts Council of England has followed the trend by investing in the new Children’s Touring Partnership, set up by commercial producer Edward Snape, in order to tour larger scale children’s productions into the major theatres.  I must declare an interest, because the first production of this new initiative is my adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, produced in association with Chichester Festival Theatre, starring Oliver Ford Davies.  This is particularly exciting for me, because I have wanted to adapt this book for the stage for many years, but it has till now been impossible to make happen, because it really does need, in children’s theatre terms, a larger cast than is normally viable – including ‘real’ children, with tutors and chaperones.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear that the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have not presented many children’s plays over the years, had decided to launch a major family musical.  MATILDA has had great notices. 

And it has been heartening to see the huge success of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, a splendid production, still drawing the crowds at Waterloo Station. 

But does this new explosion of interest in this area of work by our major national companies really represent a genuine commitment to the work, or has it been triggered by the very real possibility of financial cutbacks?  Is the family audience suddenly seen as the saviour of the box office?  That remains to be seen.  But it is certainly true and somewhat ironic that the specialist children’s theatre companies are bracing themselves for difficult times.  Unicorn and Polka receive proportionately less funding than their adult counterparts, but will probably suffer the same percentage of cuts.  Smaller companies that already are run on a shoestring, are in danger.  Gwent Theatre, who do splendid work in schools in rural Wales have already lost their entire Welsh Arts Council grant.  And recently Barnet Council proposed to cut their entire grant to the Arts Depot, a relatively new theatre building that has focussed heavily and successfully on work for and with children.

My fear is that the small, important, pioneering specialist companies that so diligently and with such dedication service smaller venues such as studio theatres, arts centres, village halls and schools, will be the ones to suffer, at the very time when it would seem on the surface that children’s theatre was beginning to shed its Cinderella image. 

And it must never be forgotten that family theatre is not children’s theatre.  Children, especially the youngest, need their own theatre productions, and I worry that the companies that cater for them may lose funding, at the expense of shows aimed at a wider market.  Please, Arts Councils and other funding bodies, protect these companies!

They may not only lose funding, they may also lose bookings, especially in theatres with reduced local authority funding, theatres that feel they cannot afford the luxury of a low-priced children’s show.  Please, theatres, keep booking these shows!

David Wood


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