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A Fabulous Beast

Penny Francis is impressed by the reborn Unicorn Theatre

Here’s an example of serendipity: you scour London for a suitable building – or site – to house a new home for a famous children’s theatre, and you finally alight on a suitable space. Then you discover that the lane alongside the site bears the same name as your theatre. The Unicorn Theatre fronts Unicorn Passage. The passage lies between Tooley Street, outside London Bridge station, and the river Thames, hard by the South Bank arts centres: the nearest are the Globe and Tate Modern.

The style of the spanking new building is not exactly Polka or the Little Angel and at the moment the exterior, the office spaces and the foyer are modern and hard-edged. The foyer is to be softened with installation art (a Japanese designer is preparing wonderful creatures made with withies); and the two playing spaces, one a rectangular studio (80 or so seats) and one an adaptable horseshoe (320 seats), are warm and inviting.

Why would funders and backers, private and statutory, put millions into a brand new building to house theatre for children? Unicorn’s artistic director Tony Graham marvelled at the changed attitudes to young people’s theatre that have made this investment possible. Some readers will no doubt remember how, in recent years, there have been many national and international conferences and festivals about children’s and young people’s theatre where speaker after speaker pleaded the cause. Things were almost as bad, in terms of subvention and status and infrastructure and knowledgeable criticism, as for puppet theatre! And if puppetry has come out of its ghetto and has allied itself to theatre at large, theatre for the young has grown stronger and more interesting in every way, attracting artists – designers, writers, musicians, performers, directors – of ever higher quality.

Those international conferences and festivals have brought results, and helped to put pressure on the potential funders and supporters to change attitudes dramatically (as it were). It should be acknowledged that in this case the Arts Council came up trumps. They took a policy decision to reward new work for the young that really was new. They looked for challenging writing, an understanding of aesthetics, enlarging perspectives to embrace and explore the world – these were some of their criteria to help raise the game.

Tony Graham was one of those who had no problems with those demands. Challenges, aesthetics, wide perspectives, a lively enthusiasm for new ideas and forms are all evident after speaking with him for just a few minutes.

His ideas of what makes exciting theatre for the young can now take shape in the new building. Unicorn has a long history, and although, after years of touring, the company did indeed come to rest for thirty-five years (1967 to 2003) in the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square, it was always a temporary measure. The dream of a permanent home did not go away. The company, founded by the pioneer Caryl Jenner in 1947, had by the ‘60s a national reputation, brilliantly developed when Nicholas Barter became director after Caryl Jenner’s death, and since 1997 with Tony Graham at the helm.
Graham is a highly experienced theatre director on a steep learning curve. He’ll be on it, I swear, as long as he lives. He’s that sort of man. To talk to him is to catch a fever of enthusiasm, visions, discoveries and total dedication to his theatre and its future. His taste in theatre is nothing if not catholic: he loves (and wants more of) puppetry and object theatre, dance and music theatre, opera, text-led and image-led work, popular work such as adaptations of well-known books, and experimental chamber pieces. He is fascinated by the possibilities of ‘found sound’ and soundscapes, devised theatre, storyboards, the delicate substitution of images for words, although he is a man of words and wants children to appreciate and grow to love them through theatre. Practitioners he admires and has collaborated with include Steve Tiplady, McDermott and Crouch of Improbable, Simon McBurney of Complicite, theatre-rites’ Sue Buckmaster and Sophia Clist, Oily Cart, Annie Wood, and writers Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman and Carl Miller (who is also the theatre’s associate director), Brian Way, Charles Way and others – I admire his taste since I am myself a fan of all of them and since the list includes so many who ‘do’ puppets.

The theatre opened to fanfares last November (2005), and the programme already reveals the mix of productions that promise to ‘exercise the issue of children’s theatre’. There has been David Wood’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Carl Miller’s Journey to the River Sea; a collaboration with the marvellous Teatro Briciole; a musical, Yikes!, and now a zany Treasure Island from Scotland (Wee Stories). The immediate future holds an African musical (from an African company, Vuluvulani); a light installation by Oily Cart for young people with complex disabilities or autistic spectrum disorder; a new adaptation of Cyrano and a home-grown production of Oz. Various events and activities enrich the mix. Graham thinks in terms of 60% house-created productions, around 30% visiting companies and roughly 15% international work (to spice the almost-global debate on what makes good theatre for children).

He has massive challenges before him. Naturally the hardest are the financial ones: the building still needs additions and refinements; it has to become a destination of choice for the family and for school outings without relying on the obvious attractions of a sugary diet of well-known pop stories adapted from books, films and TV. If teachers and parents lead their charges here they will find surprise and excitement – two essentials of theatre – for themselves as much as for the kids. It may need some time and a steady hand on the tiller, not to mention the continuing encouragement and support of Southwark Council, the Arts Council and private sponsors, to get the vessel stabilised.

I saw an extraordinary piece in the studio theatre (labelled The Weston); the show was called Play Antarctica. With the simplest of material resources, it conjured up a world of ice and snow, of silence, ice cracking, winds buffeting, animals crying. Its genesis came from a solitary sound designer called Craig Vear, who sent himself to Antarctica to record its unpeopled sounds. In the show he played various instruments and strange ‘things’ on a platform overlooking two performers, one of whom was puppeteer Sean Myatt and the other actor Tim Kane, known to some readers from his work on the Little Angel’s Mouse Queen. The use of objects and materials was inventive and surprising and the children were gripped. It was Tony Graham’s first close encounter of the object theatre kind: he directed it and was happy to discover more of the potential of image and object play and the inventiveness of the three players. I saw the show and enjoyed its originality and unexpected power over a rapt young audience even with all its silences and subtleties and without a strong narrative to drive it.

That was one of Graham’s many pointers along the way to the new Unicorn and its future trajectory. He says: ‘I want to blow children’s minds – and my own – with a rich palette of forms’. He is in pursuit of the future, of a modern flavour for children’s theatre.

The Unicorn is sixty years old, and starting on a new story, a story of the next sixty years, let us fervently hope. The word ‘exciting’ is over-used in theatre, but it applies here. If you will go to London Bridge station, pass the London Dungeon and look upwards at the buildings on the other side of Tooley Street, you’ll find it in a trice. The Unicorn in Unicorn Passage. Go and experience a spine-tingling vision of young people’s theatre.

For further information on the Unicorn Theatre and for full details of the summer performance and education/activities programme, see

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