Britain's first theatre for children opens - but without the chocolate floor

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The Independent Culture

When plans for Britain's first purpose-built theatre for children were first mooted, the architect Keith Williams consulted potential pint-size punters on their own ideas.

He did not succeed in laying chocolate floors, as one desired, but as the £13m Unicorn Theatre threw open its doors yesterday, many of their suggestions had been incorporated.

Adult visitors, who were led at the opening by the actors Lord Attenborough, Wendy Craig, Geoffrey Palmer, Patricia Routledge and Roger Lloyd Pack, and the writers Philip Pullman, John Hegley and Adrian Mitchell, will find all the facilities one might expect of any theatre, including a bar, at the new venue in Tooley Street, London. But for the children, there are nooks and child-size crannies to play in and hand-rails and bathroom facilities all at friendlier heights.

In an emotional speech, Lord Attenborough said that the future rested with young people: "The new Unicorn Theatre provides unparalleled opportunities for children of all backgrounds to benefit from the joy and cultural education that theatre provides for generations to come. I feel rather like Father Christmas today. There are gifts in the new Unicorn Theatre the like of which are not equalled in many places."

Some of its first child visitors, Rachel and Tutu, both nine, from neighbouring Tower Bridge primary school, certainly seemed thrilled at the development and excited to be drumming at the opening ceremony. "Next week we're going to see Tom's Midnight Garden and I'm really excited about that," Rachel said. "I think it's nice," Tutu added.

Linda Byers, their teacher, said it was stimulating to see the educational projects provided alongside the productions in the 340-seat main auditorium. "You get a lot of ideas," she said. "It gives the children the idea that theatre is for everybody, not just a posh activity. And the confidence it builds in them is fantastic."

The Unicorn was founded as a travelling company for children by Caryl Jenner in 1947 and eventually won a temporary home at the Arts Theatre in London. But Jenner, who died in 1973, had always wanted a purpose-built venue. It proved politically and financially impossible during her life-time, but determined fund-raising finally succeeded.

Tony Graham, its current artistic director, said a dedicated theatre was important in developing and presenting a special repertoire for children, such as the new adaptation by David Wood of the classic novel Tom's Midnight Garden, which opened last night.

"There aren't Chekhov plays for under-12s, there aren't Shakespeares for seven-year-olds. We need to cultivate work for them," Mr Graham said. "And if you're going to make theatre that is the equal of adult theatre, you need your own space to do it. Here I have got the theatre I have wanted to work in all my life. This is my dream space."

He stressed the importance of the reception the children received and also of the need for research. "In many theatres, children are an add-on, an imposition, who you open the doors to for a few nights at Christmas and make a lot of money out of them. But you have to take the children seriously, not just on stage but off stage - for example, how they are greeted when they arrive," he said.

"But children are also changing all the time. They seem to grow older younger, their consciousness about the world is very different compared with the 1960s and 1970s. We need to research how children develop," he added. Teenagers and adults had to enjoy the experience, too, he said. "I don't think theatre for children works unless it speaks to all of us. The building does have this adult perspective as well as the children's perspective. Teenagers shouldn't feel it's not cool to be here."

Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials and a former teacher, said: "Theatre for children puts them in the same space as the storytelling itself, not separated by a camera or a screen. Theatre and arts education directly links to literacy and children's understanding of the world."

Joanna David, the actress, has been involved in supporting the Unicorn since she took her then five-year-old daughter, Emilia Fox, now 31 and herself an actress, there. "I'm passionate about the importance of live theatre," she said. "It releases the child's imagination and elevates the spirit. We have books for children and films for children - there has got to be theatre for children."

And it appears others agree. The opening of the Unicorn comes only a few months after the unveiling of The Egg, a £3m auditorium which will host the educational work of the Bath Theatre Royal.