London is known worldwide as a destination for theater lovers; its playhouses, opera and ballet stages, and fringe theaters host the work of top performers, directors and writers every day of the week. But the British capital isn’t only a world leader in theater for adults — you’ll find some of the best performances for children, young people and families here, too. We pick out London’s top theaters for families traveling with kids.
The Barbican, English National Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company are just three of the illustrious companies that the team at this former-temperance-hall-turned-puppetry-mecca has worked with since the Little Angel was founded more than 50 years ago. There’s a charming family vibe at the tiny Islington theater that belies the innovation taking place on stage and in the workshop next door. Traditional forms such as marionette, shadow and glove puppetry come together with video projection and live music to create engaging works such as Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (through February 23), which has baby-friendly performances Sunday mornings.
A short walk from London Bridge, this modern building presents work for everyone from babes in arms to adults, with more grown-up shows telling stories relevant to young people. Adaptations of classic tales such as Hannah, a reimagining of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (February 8 to March 9), and The Velveteen Rabbit (March 21 to April 19) run alongside original productions such as Grandpa’s Railway (through February 9) and sensory experiences such as toddler sound and light show Sensacional (April 26 to May 11). A soft-play area is set up in the theater’s bright foyer during the intermission of some shows, and a handful of productions have relaxed performances designed for audience members with a learning disability. A free play club takes place Saturdays from noon for kids four and older. Backstage tours for children seven and older run about once a month.
Wimbledon is famous for tennis, but the championships aren’t the only place for captivating family entertainment in this part of the U.K. The neighborhood is also home to Polka Theatre, which has been making work for infants to 13-year-olds at this former church hall since 1979. There’s a 300-seat main space and an intimate studio theater for the under-five crowd, plus an exhibition space, a café in the form of a train, an outdoor playground and an impressive collection of historic teddy bears. From interactive early-year productions such as The Pop Up Tea Room (through March 28) to more conventional fare such as the hugely imaginative Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (through February 15), Polka’s shows will have youngsters screaming in delight.
This beautiful Victorian auditorium (don’t be fooled by the modern exterior), hosts a different visiting children’s theater company every Saturday, as well as runs of longer duration for kids on school vacation in February and October. The theater programs work for children up to 10 years old, with recommended age ranges differing from production to production. The Little Red Hen (February 20 to 22) features a variety of animal puppets and sing-alongs to tell the classic moral tale. Each Christmas, the Lyric presents a pantomime — this uniquely British theater tradition for families involves audience participation and song and dance. The Lyric’s pantomime is always outstanding.
Theatreland is bursting with child-friendly shows right now, many of them adaptations of classic kids’ books. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Sam Mendes-directed spectacular at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane that’ll have your toes tapping and your mouth watering, to the National Theatre’s West End transfer of War Horse, a moving story told with giant puppets of a boy’s love for his steed during World War I, there’s something for everyone. If you have to choose just one of the productions on offer, make it the Royal Shakespeare Company’s telling of Roald Dahl’s Matilda at the Shubert Theatre. With music and lyrics by comedian Tim Minchin, this tale of a little girl with extraordinary abilities is one of the cleverest and most entertaining shows to be seen in London for a long time. If you’re in the British capital in August, check out Kids Week (which now lasts an entire month), offering free tickets for kids 16 and younger, and activities for families at theaters in the West End and beyond.
Photos Courtesy of The Royal Shakespeare Company-Manuel Harlan and Robert Workman