With 250 theatres to choose from in London, it can be a daunting task wading through the hundreds of listings for family-friendly shows. Here, Phillipa Ellis, author of Arts Aloud, gives her top 10 destination theatres for family-friendly performances.
Little Angel Theatre, Islington
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.
Little Angel Theatre, 14 Dagmar Passage, N1 2DN
Nearby: Pretty St Mary’s Church Garden is great for getting some air post-theatre, and is close to the best of Upper Street’s family-friendly cafés and restaurants.
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Behind Tally Ho Corner 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, as well as creative workshops during the school holidays. The centre also plays a wider role in the community, offering performances for local schools and drama classes for young performers.
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.
artsdepot, 5 Nether Street, Tally Ho Corner, N12 0GA
Sadler’s Wells, Angel
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, it does introduce young audiences to more mature aspects of the performing arts throughout the rest of the year too.
London Children’s Ballet, featuring dancers aged 9-16, is guaranteed to inspire future performers, and along with its unmissable annual family weekend (usually during Easter) there is pretty regular comedy cabaret, original hip hop and contemporary dance theatre for families throughout the year.
But the icing on the cake is My First Ballet. An exciting ongoing collaboration with English National Ballet, children as young as three are invited to experience adaptations of classic productions, like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, which use narrators and shortened musical scores to help them follow proceedings.
Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4TN
Nearby: Exmouth Market Centre is home to Mrs H and the Singalong Band, a charming group of professional musicians who offer free sing-along performances to families every Wednesday and Thursday.
Half Moon Theatre, Limehouse
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 performances and events throughout the year (although the main season runs from September to April), the Half Moon is one of very few theatres in London that offers such an affordable experience for families, with all tickets just £7 (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.
Half Moon Theatre, 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.
Stratford Circus, Stratford
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.
The arts centre showcases popular productions, but it also supports independent theatre companies. This enables a growing young audience to encounter more unusual aspects of theatre, such as film-theatre, acrobatics and circus. The centre hosts a range of classes and workshops for children as young as three months through to teens. But more important is its commitment to Newham Council’s Every Child A Theatre Goer programme, which enables every Newham school child, whether primary or secondary age, to attend a theatre performance for free.
Stratford Circus, Theatre Square, 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.
Southbank Centre, South Bank
No list of London family theatres is complete without the inclusion of Southbank Centre, a mecca for theatre-loving families. As well as its dedicated annual children’s festival Imagine, Southbank Centre runs around 12 festivals a year, each of which includes theatrical interpretations of the theme for the family audience.
There's plenty more performance-based family fun, including regular music workshops, interactive dance shows, concerts and singing sessions. Many are free, so it's certainly worth having a browse. It’s no overstatement to say that London’s family theatre scene would be lost without this institution.
Southbank Centre, 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.
The Albany, Deptford
Along with sister venues Deptford Lounge and Canada Water Theatre, The Albany ensures 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 and pretty patio garden, means that parents might initially come here for their children, but will almost certainly come back and try something for themselves.
The Albany, Douglas Way, SE8 4AG
Unicorn Theatre, Tower Bridge
With two theatres catering for audiences from six months to 18 years old, each season at Unicorn Theatre is built around key themes, often presenting eclectic productions for all manner of ages. The theatre reaches around 90,000 children and guardians every year, with an ever-changing roster of exciting performances, from hands-on sensory sessions to darker teen novel adaptations.
For older children, Unicorn Theatre presents an appealing middle-ground between playful children's sessions and a more mature theatre experience, often focusing on spoken word and storytelling ahead of colourful sets and theatrics. With a host of family events extending from popular productions, don’t be surprised that the kids don’t even notice the grand piano or soft play area in the foyer.
Unicorn Theatre, 147 Tooley Street, SE1 2HZ
Nearby: In the summer months, The Scoop at London Bridge City hosts its annual Summer By The River Festival featuring all manner of entertainment, including puppet workshops, storytelling sessions and free performances and film screenings.
National Theatre, South Bank
A heavyweight in London’s grown-up theatre scene, the National Theatre has 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, Beauty and the Beast, and War Horse.
Every year, the theatre's Connections Festival commissions ten new plays by ten young companies, a welcome and significant boost to London's youth theatre scene. In addition, the 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.
National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX
Nearby: Jubilee Gardens is a great spot from which to view some of South Bank’s best street performers, while more active family members can explore the adventure playground.
Polka Theatre, Wimbledon
When you walk into Polka Theatre, there is never any doubt about who the 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 tasty and healthy homemade food (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 Stage caters for children up to the age of 14. Polka also offers relaxed performances of every Main Stage performance and some Adventure Theatre performances too.
Polka Theatre, 240 The Broadway, 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.