Child's play: A boom in British theatre

TV tie-ins and book adaptations are pulling in younger audiences
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The Independent Culture

They cannot pronounce "proscenium arch" yet, let alone spell it, but a new generation of theatregoers is flocking to the box office and dragging parents along behind.

Growing demand for productions suitable for younger audiences is prompting theatres to stage shows either solely for children or that bridge the generation gap. The most noticeable growth is in performances for under-fives.

Family spectacles such as the musical The Lion King helped London theatre box-office revenues top £500m for the first time last year, and theatres across the country are staging more productions aimed at the young. Many of these adapt popular books and television programmes, starring characters such as Peppa Pig – heading to Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, this week.

This summer's Kids Week, a Society of London Theatre (Solt) scheme providing West End ticket offers and activities, enjoyed the best outing in its 13-year history. Emma De Souza, Solt development manager, said family reality television casting shows such as I'd Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber's BBC search for a cast for Oliver!, prompted a "massive increase" in sales. A BBC adaptation of The Gruffalo last Christmas has boosted box office receipts for a touring show based on the bestseller by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

Lucy Wood, general manager at KW & NB, behind the Tall Stories' production, said the company had expanded from one to five productions annually in just over three years.

London's Unicorn Theatre, one of a handful of dedicated children's theatres, which produces new writing as well as adaptations, is selling at 81 per cent of its capacity, compared to 61 per cent in 2007/8. Tony Graham, the Unicorn's artistic director, said there was a "very powerful social need" for cross-generational events. He added that while there had been a stigma attached to children's theatre, there was now "movement forward".

"Anything to do with children is either sentimentalised or reduced in some way and not respected in the way it should be," he said. "Those of us making theatre for children have felt marginalised, under-respected, under-resourced, and even that is changing." However, he warned it was a "long revolution".

The Royal Court Theatre, known for showcasing new work from innovative writers, is staging a family show, Get Santa!, for the first time this Christmas. Artistic director Dominic Cooke said that while the family and children field was strong, there were not many contemporary, original plays.

Leading children's dramatist David Wood, whose adaptation of Michelle Magorian's book Goodnight Mister Tom opens in Chichester in February, agreed that outlets for new writing were "few and far between".

He welcomed the "dramatic rise" in family theatre. But he warned that successful realisation adaptations could lead to "commercial rip-offs" – cheap productions not done with dedication or care. Like many in the arts, he fears the impact of potential funding cuts: York Theatre Royal's West End hit The Railway Children began as a subsidised production at the National Railway Museum in York.

Children's theatre...

The Gruffalo

The stage adaptation of the children's picture book phenomenon from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, which goes into the West End at the Garrick this Christmas following a national tour, celebrates its 10th birthday next year. Sales have been boosted following the BBC's popular TV adaptation of the book in 2009. The production company Tall Stories also has Donaldson and Scheffler's The Gruffalo's Child in Edinburgh this Christmas, while Room on the Broom will be on in Exeter.

Shrek the Musical

After the Oscar-winning film, from May, in London, fans will be able to follow the exploits of the green giant Shrek (Nigel Lindsay) and loyal steed Donkey (Richard Blackwood) as they attempt to rescue Princess Fiona (Amanda Holden) at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Emma De Souza, development manager at the Society of London Theatre, says the film High School Musical and the hit TV show Glee had helped musical theatre throw off its "geeky" reputation. Instead, it is now "quite cool".

Get Santa!

This fun and touching new work is the first family show in the Royal Court Theatre's history. Its artistic director, Dominic Cooke, said playwright Anthony Neilson, known for his work for adults, was the perfect person for the job and compared his "darker, playful imagination" to the "taboo buster" Roald Dahl. "The children's shows that work are the ones that don't patronise the kids, in my experience," says Cooke.

Oliver!

One of the West End shows to benefit from Andrew Lloyd Webber's televised talent searches, the musical broke all previous box office records at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane during October half-term in 2009. Research by Ipsos Mori found almost half of the people who watched a theatre-based reality TV show said it had made them more likely to see the musical production featured on screen, with 34 per cent more likely to go to any West End musical.

War Horse

Puppets are the star of this spectacular production, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel set during the First World War, which appeals to adults and children alike. Its popularity is such that it was responsible for a third of the 1.2 million total paid attendances for National Theatre produced performances in London in 2009/10. Following its transfer to the New London Theatre in the West End, it is now booking until October 2011, and will also open in New York next year.

Goodnight Mister Tom

The children's dramatist David Wood's new play follows the trend for adaptations of popular children's books, as Michelle Magorian's 1981 novel about William Beech, a boy evacuated from London during the Second World War, gets its first stage outing. A Bafta award-winning television film of the modern classic, starring John Thaw, attracted 14 million viewers in 1998, so this Chichester Festival Theatre production could be a hit when it opens its doors in February.

Shaun's Big Show

The cuddly Aardman cartoon character Shaun the Sheep will become the latest children's TV character to take to the stage when David Wood's adaptation opens for a UK tour in February. Billed as a children's variety performance, the choreographed production will feature dance, as well as music and magic. Other TV adaptations have fared well, and this should charm the all-important under-fives.

Peppa Pig's Party

After declining an invitation to join Labour's election campaign, Peppa Pig is delighting young audiences with her own party at theatres across the country, appearing at Whitley Bay Playhouse, North Tyneside, this week. The production will have visited 78 venues in the UK and Ireland by the time it reaches the West End for Christmas, with further touring plans under discussion for 2011. TV star Peppa is one of the biggest pre-school properties and the programme has been sold into over 150 territories.

Bagpuss

The show is aimed at children aged seven or under, but countless adults will no doubt enjoy the pink-and-white-striped saggy old cloth cat's stage debut in London this Christmas. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's cult television favourite has been adapted by Jonathan Lloyd for a co-production between Birmingham Stage Company and Soho Theatre. Professor Yaffle, Madeleine the rag doll, Emily, the mice and Gabriel the toad will all be in attendance.

The Railway Children

The subsidised York Theatre Royal production, which features a working locomotive, steamed into the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station in London in July, after a stint at the National Railway Museum in York. The success of the adaptation of Edith Nesbit's much-loved classic was such that its nine-week run was extended and the show is now booking until January. Producer Jenny King said about a third of the audience were children, with many grandparents bringing whole families. Adults will remember previous screen adaptations.

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