Last year, for the first time, London was hailed as the theatre capital of the world (pdf). With just under 250 theatres to choose from, it can be a daunting task wading through the hundreds of listings for family-friendly shows. Here, Phillipa Ellis, author of Arts Aloud: Enjoying the arts with little people gives her top 10 destination theatres, for family-friendly performances.
Little Angel Theatre
Located in a converted temperance hall, inches from Islington’s busy Upper Street, this magical children’s theatre has a unique place in London’s family theatre scene. Since its foundation in 1961, the Little Angel Theatre has been producing, hosting and touring lively marionette shows for all ages, with the majority of characters originating from its on-site workshop. For those looking to get closer to the craft, the theatre hosts midweek sessions for pre-school and nursery age children (2-4 years, £125 per term) as well as a Youth Theatre group and Puppet Club (5-11 years, £95 per term) on Saturday mornings. 14 Dagmar Passage, N1 2DN
Nearby: Pretty St Mary’s Church Garden is great for a run around post-theatre, and super close to the best of Upper Street’s family-friendly cafés and restaurants.
Behind the unremarkable Tally HoCorner in Finchley lies a hidden emporium of family theatre. Boasting four floors of impressive creative space (including two good-sized theatres), artsdepot promises wide-ranging family shows almost every weekend — well-loved stories and touring productions, as well as Comedy Club 4 Kids in half term. The centre also performs a wider role in the community, through initiatives such as Talking in Class, using spoken word, storytelling and drama to improve communication skills for children in Primary School Key Stage 1. With a cosy café on the second floor (complete with book corner and soft play), and the walls on every level adorned with handy work from its patrons, artsdepot is one of the most inspirational and inclusive theatrical spaces a family could ever wish to visit. Every London borough should have one. 5 Nether Street, Tally Ho Corner, N12 0GA
Nearby: Family visitors on selected Sundays will love Sunday Buzz, free lunchtime music in the venue's cafedepot. Artist genres range from folk to jazz and classical. No booking required.
While it may seem that Sadler’s Wells and its affiliated theatres are mostly only accessible to families through Christmas productions such as The Snowman, throughout the rest of the year it plays an influential role in introducing a range of young audiences to more mature aspects of the performing arts. London Children’s Ballet, featuring dancers aged 9-16, is guaranteed to inspire future performers, and along with its unmissable annual family weekend there is comedy cabaret, original hip hop and contemporary dance theatre. But the icing on the cake is My First Ballet. An exciting collaboration with English National Ballet, children as young as three are invited to experience adaptations of classic productions, which use narrators and shortened musical scores to help them follow proceedings. Rosebery Ave, London EC1R 4TN
Nearby: Exmouth Market is home to independent book shop Bookends, specialising in children’s books including craft books and non-fiction, as well as origami and other arts and crafts.
Half Moon Theatre
With a mission to bring the best in young people’s theatre to this area of the East End, the Half Moon is the epitome of what a family theatre should be. Specialising in new writing and supporting emerging theatrical talent, it consistently delivers energetic performances and original scores that will leave you singing and dancing for the rest of the day. As well as hosting a range of family events and workshops throughout the year, the Half Moon is one of very few theatres in London that offers such an affordable experience for families, with all tickets just £6 (children under 12 months free). The recently refurbished foyer also features an inspirational gallery space to showcase the work of local artists; while below, young visitors can leave their own works of art on the giant chalkboards. 43 White Horse Road, E1 0ND
Nearby: Get the kids to ‘drive’ the DLR back two stops to West India Quay, and explore the incredible Museum of London Docklands with its walk-through Sailortown. So good you’ll feel guilty that it’s free.
Long before the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Westfield dropped on its doorstep, Stratford Circus was dedicated to providing arts-based entertainment for families in the local area. Today, following Stratford’s transformation, the centre continues to place children at the heart of what it offers. Its children’s theatre programme Circlets showcases popular productions, but it also supports independent theatre companies enabling it to introduce its growing young audience to more unusual aspects of theatre, such as film-theatre and circus. The centre hosts a range of theatrical classes and workshops for children as young as one (Toddler Jam, one-three years) through to early teens (Youth Theatre, 9-13 years) but more important is its commitment to Newham Council’s Every Child A Theatre Goer programme, which enables every Newham school child in Year 5 or 6, to attend a theatre performance for free. Theatre Square, Stratford, E15 1BX
Nearby: Discover Children’s Story Centre is a hands-on space for children 0-11, complete with indoor and outdoor activities and interactive family exhibitions.
No list of London family theatres is complete without the inclusion of the Southbank Centre, a mecca for theatre-loving families. As well as its dedicated annual children’s festival Imagine, the Southbank Centre runs around 12 festivals a year, each of which includes theatrical interpretations of the theme for the family audience. It’s no overstatement to say that London’s family theatre scene would be lost without this institution. Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
Nearby: Watch skateboarders and scooters play to an audience of a different kind, at the undercroft, Queen Elizabeth Hall; home to London’s most famous skate park and a designated space for street art.
If you’re en route to The Albany on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, be prepared to experience theatre of a very different nature, in the form of Deptford’s lively historic market and its spectacular of giant African snails, awe-inspiring fishmongers and exotic fruit and vegetables. The theatre itself (along with sister venues Deptford Lounge and Canada Water Culture Space) ensure there is something on offer for families every weekend, from circus extravaganzas to touring puppetry, with the opportunity to meet the characters at the end. This together with a superb licensed café, a pretty patio garden and the launch of its £1 ticket scheme last year has meant that parents might initially come here for their children, but will almost certainly come back and try something for themselves. Douglas Way, SE8 4AG
Nearby: Big Red Pizza Bus offers a chance to scoff artisan pizzas and homemade pastas on board a genuine London double-decker.
“All our shows are in 3D” says a sign at the door. And it's not wrong. With two theatres catering for audiences from 2-21, each season is built around key themes, drawing on the past and present, replicating a mature theatre experience by frequently focussing on spoken word and storytelling, sometimes with the absence of a snazzy set or bouncing score. Renowned for pushing boundaries, The Unicorn prides itself on presenting original and cutting-edge work, such as the acclaimed sound and light show Sensacional, which places the theatre experience firmly in the hands of its young viewers. Add in a Saturday play club and a host of family events extending from popular productions, and you won’t be surprised that the kids don’t even notice the occasional grand piano or soft play area in the foyer. 147 Tooley Street, SE1 2HZ
Nearby: In the summer months, The Scoop at More London hosts its annual Free Festival featuring theatre, film and fringe, as well as a host of other events, such as Watch This Space festival.
A heavyweight in London’s grown-up theatre scene, the National Theatre has also been devising new plays and re-telling classics for family audiences since the 1980s. Inspired by the shared experience of theatre, it has recently taken a more collaborative approach to productions for younger audiences, inviting them to shape the creative process for many of the big-ticket shows presented in recent years, such as Hansel and Gretel, and Beauty and the Beast. Every season, productions cater to a diverse range of ages from the younger, more imaginative Elephantom, to productions such as War Horse, attracting the appeal of older children and teens. In addition, the new Clore Learning Centre promises to deliver monthly family days, drop-in activities, ticketed workshops and even backstage tours, cementing its reputation as a destination theatre for families far and wide. South Bank, SE1 9PX
Nearby: Jubilee Gardens is a great spot from which to view some of the South Bank’s best street performers, while more active family members can explore the adventure playground.
When you walk into the Polka Theatre, there is never any doubt about who this space is aimed at. Rocking horses, a fantastic book corner, a playground garden complete with Wendy house and a giant cat, plus a superb café selling homemade food that is both tasty and healthy (not a chip in sight!). The Polka benefits from two fantastic theatres, each dedicated to entertaining young audiences through original productions and retelling of familiar stories. Downstairs, the Adventure Theatre hosts shorter productions typically suited to a pre-school audience, including interactive sessions for children as young as nine months, while upstairs the Main Theatre caters for children up to the age of 14. Polka was also the first theatre to introduce relaxed performances (autism friendly) and has All Ages Welcome performances for most major productions; ensuring families with children of various ages can enjoy the experience together. 240 The Broadway, Wimbledon, SW19 1SB
Nearby: Deen City Farm is an urban farm where you can feed the animals and watch Edna the owl fly over the farm fields. The neighbouring riding school also offers affordable lessons and pony rides for children.
Want to find out more? If you are keen to properly experience London’s theatre scene with your family, every summer the Kidsweek initiative provides the perfect opportunity by offering free child places to many top London shows.