Children's theatre


Arabian Nights

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Dominic Cooke's Arabian Nights is an inventive retelling of the classic tales. It was first performed at the Young Vic, London, on 16 November 1998.

It is wedding night in the palace of King Shahrayar. By morning, the new Queen Shahrazad is to be put to death like all the young brides before her. But she has one gift that could save her – the gift of storytelling. With her mischievous imagination, the young Queen spins her dazzling array of tales and characters, bringing them to life before the king: Ali Baba, Es-Sindibad the Sailor, Princess Parizade, adventurers in strange and magical worlds populated by giant beasts, talking birds, devilish ghouls and crafty thieves.

The six stories from the original collections featured in this version are: The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Story of the Little Beggar, The Story of Es-Sindibad the Sailor, How Abu Hassan Broke Wind, The Story of the Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat and The Story of the Envious Sisters. The framing story of Queen Shahrazad is retained throughout.

The Young Vic premiere was directed by Dominic Cooke. The play was revived, in a revised version, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 5 December 2009, also directed by Dominic Cooke, designed by Georgia McGuinness and with music by Gary Yershon.

The Ash Girl

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

When an invitation to The Ball arrives at the Ash girl's house, from Prince Amir, she can't bring herself to believe that she, like her sisters, can go. With her mother dead and her father away, she must learn to fight the monsters that have slithered and insinuated their way into her heart and mind. In this wondrous drama Timberlake Wertenbaker explores the beauty and terror inherent in growing up.

The Ash Girl premiered at Birmingham Rep in 2001.

Banana Boys

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Evan Placey's Banana Boys is a play about the challenges of being on the school football team – and secretly gay. It was commissioned by Hampstead Theatre’s youth theatre company, heat&light, and first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 9 December 2011.

The play revolves around the friendship between two sixteen-year-old boys, Calum and Cameron, who become obsessed with American girl-group, The Banana Girls.

In an introduction to the published script in Girls Like That and other plays for teenagers (Nick Hern Books, 2016), Placey writes: 'Growing up queer there weren’t many young gay role models to look up to. So instead I looked up to music divas. I’m not sure what it was, but there was something about their power, their confidence, and their absolutely being at ease in their own skin that left me in awe. And so the opportunity to create my very own group of divas, The Banana Girls, was irresistible. My favourite films as a teen were the romcoms, except the queer characters didn’t exist in them, never mind being forefront. So it was my chance to rectify the past.'

The Hampstead Theatre premiere was directed by Debra Glazer and designed by Robbie Sinnott. It was performed by members of heat&light youth theatre.

Beauty and the Beast (adapt. Way)

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

A play about overcoming fear, where the subconscious world is represented through imagery and movement. The play begins with a startling dream sequence and then segues into the drawing-room world of a Jane Austen novel, before moving to the wilds of Dartmoor. 'All the ingredients of the classic fairytale with the added dimension of rounded characters who are flawed human beings.’ Manchester Evening News


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

One night at the orphanage, Sophie can’t sleep. When she looks out the window, she sees a giant blowing dreams into children’s heads through their bedroom windows. Realising he’s been spotted, the Big Friendly Giant grabs Sophie and takes her back to his cave in Giant Country, where they eat snozzcumbers and drink frobscottle, before galloping off to Dream Country to collect some dreams. In order to save the people of England from being eaten up by the man-eating giants, Sophie and the BFG must concoct a dream that will persuade the Queen of England to believe in evil giants, so that with the help of the army and the air force, they might be rid of them once and for all.

The BFG is based on Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, and was first produced at the Wimbledon Theatre, London in 1991, before transferring to the Aldwych Theatre for the Christmas season.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Nikki doesn't think her dad is a racist … He just cares deeply about his community … But when a Zimbabwean family move in over the road, the dog won't stop barking … The local kids start lobbing stones … And her dad starts laying down the law.

Black is a hard-hitting play about racial tensions in the UK today 

The Box of Delights  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Kay Harker is heading home for the school holidays. Recently orphaned, he knows this Christmas will be different but nothing could prepare him for the journey that lies ahead.

On the train he meets an old magician, Cole Hawlings, who charges Kay with safeguarding a wondrous device that has time-travelling powers. It’s an instrument that Cole’s nemesis, the wicked sorcerer Abner Brown, will stop at nothing to steal for himself. And so when the old man mysteriously disappears, Kay faces the fight of his life. He must protect both the Box of Delights and, with it, the people he loves.

Adapted for the stage for the first time by Piers Today, John Masefield's classic The Box of Delights premiered at Wilton’s Music Hall in December 2017.

The Boy Who Fell into a Book

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Rockfist Slim's enemies have just plunged him into yet another desperate situation when Kevin has to close his detective book and go to sleep. But his own adventure is only just beginning. Fast-moving, fun and full of special effects, Ayckbourn's wonderfully inventive play for children brings alive several well-known children's books as Kevin and Rockfist Slim escape the baddies and plunge into many different worlds.

The Boy Who Fell into a Book premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in December 1998.

The Champion of Paribanou

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

A sultan seeks lasting peace by marrying off one of his three sons to the princess of a neighbouring kingdom. The princes aren’t happy with their father’s scheme, so they hatch a plan to delay the wedding. They set out on a quest which they claim is to ‘prove their love’. Their disappearance upsets the real love of the youngest prince, who believes she has been betrayed. When her heatbreak leads her into the influence of evil powers, the prince must learn to fight for his family and friends.

Loosely inspired by the Arabian Nights' tale of the Flying Carpet, The Champion of Paribanou premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in November 1996.

Child of the Divide  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

I have a boy. He is across the border, I know he is.
A few miles between. The same stars

Shine on him

Summer 1947. Sixteen million people are on the move between India and the newly-formed Pakistan. Amid the violent political upheaval, young Pali’s fingers slip from his father’s hand, and his destiny changes forever.

Lost, dispossessed and alone, Pali is saved by a Muslim family. The boy is given a new home and new family, a new name, a new faith and a new life. But seven years later, his real father returns to claim him and Pali’s life is turned upside down again. He is forced to decide who he is: the Hindu boy he was born to be, the Muslim boy he has become, or simply a child of the divide.

This edition has been published to mark the 70th anniversary of the partition of India and a new high-profile production originating once again at the Polka Theatre. Sudha Bhuchar’s remarkable story of family, identity and belonging set against a fractured landscape is a fictionalised account of real experiences, of families torn apart and of stolen pasts, where friendship and love are found in unexpected places.

A term employed to denote the performance of plays by professional actors for a children’s audience. These plays are usually constructed along conventional lines using writers, directors, designers and occasionally puppetry, music and dance. The plays may include some form of seated vocal participation. The term usually distinguishes work for children under 12 years of age as opposed to the term ‘young people’s theatre’, which includes work aimed at teenagers.

In the first half of the twentieth century, children’s theatre in Britain amounted to occasional productions with spectacular visual effects mounted for short seasons, often at Christmas time in large commercial theatres, exemplified by Peter Pan (1904) by J. M. Barrie or Where the Rainbow Ends (1911) by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey. The content of such plays was often myth or fantasy, and frequently drew on well-known literature for its source. As regional repertory theatres developed they regularly produced the few classics from the repertoire, such as Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird or adaptations of popular books such as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in addition to the traditional Christmas pantomime.

In the late 1940s a number of specialist companies began to tour work for audiences of children in both schools and theatres with a more serious intent. These companies, of which the most enduring have been Caryl Jenner’s Unicorn Theatre (founded 1947) and Theatre Centre (founded in 1949), drew on the model of the work developing in the Soviet Union since the 1920s, and after the Second World War in eastern Europe, where cultural enrichment was seen to be a vital adjunct to education and where major building-based companies with considerable financial subsidy had been established, working with the same resources and expertise as theatre for adult audiences.

Jenner’s company, after touring into schools and theatres all over Britain as Caryl Jenner’s Mobile Theatre and The English Children’s Theatre, found a home as Unicorn Theatre in 1967 at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End and continued to grow after Jenner’s death in 1973, laying claim to being the only theatre for children in Britain along the east European model. In 1999 the Unicorn company left the Arts Theatre with a view to setting up its own purpose-built theatre in the centre of London. Brian Way’s Theatre Centre continued its policy of touring into schools but, abandoning its tradition of seated participation, became by its working methods and content more closely allied with the emergent Theatre in Education (TIE) movement, particularly after Way’s retirement in 1977. Since the 1980s Theatre Centre has focused on and cultivated new writing for children and young people.

By the late 1960s many more peripatetic companies had replaced the traditional companies which toured into schools. These latter had largely been superseded by the TIE companies, whose educational criteria and close links with schools had been welcomed by radical newcomers to the teaching profession. The new children’s theatre companies offered a challenging alternative to TIE, relying much more on physical and musical skills and playing as happily in parks, playgrounds or street fairs as in the school hall. Many were the same fringe groups that were finding new audiences among the adult population by playing where theatre groups had not traditionally played before.

In the 1970s David Wood, whose plays on original themes had become a standard part of the repertoire of regional repertory theatres in the 1960s, replacing traditional stories, formed Whirlygig Theatre to mount major tours in large touring theatres which would preserve the high standard of production values that increased subsidy had brought to the reps and the specialist children’s theatre companies. At the same time a touring group, Polka Theatre, presenting largely puppet plays in theatres, founded in 1967 by Richard Gill and Elizabeth Waghorn, created in south-west London the only purpose-built children’s theatre in Britain and expanded its work to include more plays performed by actors alone as well as, or with, puppets.

The growth of TIE from the mid-1960s led to a vigorous debate among those working for younger audiences as to the primacy of form or content. The increasingly political motivation of TIE practitioners led them away from myth and fantasy, with its adherence to hierarchical and heroic protagonists, magical solutions to problems and the passive role of women. Contemporary subjects, many of them sensitive ones in the eyes of parents and teachers, became the standard repertoire. In the early 1970s one of the most influential children’s theatre companies to draw on the experience of children’s own lives in urban situations was the Grips Theatre of West Berlin, whose plays were first performed in Britain by Unicorn Theatre in Roy Kift’s translations. They now form part of the standard repertoire of companies all over the Western world. In Canada companies such as Green Thumb from Vancouver brought the adventurous social dialectic of British TIE to the production values of traditional theatre for children. It was the work of such mobile and contemporary companies which now influenced the emergent children’s theatre companies in the English-speaking world more than the large-scale, building-based companies of eastern Europe. French-speaking theatre for children in both Europe and Canada meanwhile pursued a more abstract and intellectual strain.

The arts in schools, which had been gaining momentum since the 1960s, were set back as successive governments established a national curriculum based on traditional core subjects and values. Reduced local authority expenditure and standstill state funding for the arts led to the demise of the TIE movement in the 1980s and 1990s.

Novel writing for children in Britain took great strides forward in the 1960s with the work of such writers as Joan Aiken, Helen Cresswell and Alan Garner; many writers being nurtured by the benevolent editing of Kaye Webb at Puffin Books. The 1970s and 1980s in the theatre saw an upsurge in the commissioning of work for children from both established writers such as poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell and adult playwrights such as Ann Jellicoe or Ken Campbell. Many playwrights (e.g. David Holman or Canada’s Dennis Foon) learned their trade and established international reputations writing for children’s theatre. Their plays reflect a simple, unpatronizing style that addressed itself to the issues affecting children and the concerns of children growing up in the 1980s.

From their inception, however, children’s theatre companies in Britain and elsewhere have had to fight a continuing battle to have their work recognized by funding bodies such as the Arts Council of Great Britain or local authorities, and by critics and other members of the theatre profession who do not accord the same value or level of seriousness to the needs of children’s theatre. The struggle for levels of remuneration and critical recognition which would attract artists of similar stature to those working in adult theatre has been a preoccupation of all practitioners. There has been considerable discussion within the children’s theatre movement about the means necessary to create work of the highest standard. This, as well as lobbying for and promoting children’s theatre, has been the central preoccupation of the APT (Association of Professional Theatre for Children and Young People). The APT has also produced a journal, Theatre First, and helped to organize an annual festival of work for children in the north of England. Much has been done by ASSITEJ (the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People), founded in 1965 by Britain and the Soviet Union, to sustain an international debate about the need for and means of creating high-quality work, and to share worldwide experience. But product which is available all the year round, from numerous companies, some of high standard but too many underfunded, still goes largely unrecognized by critics and professionals alike.

Since the 1990s the children’s theatre movement has witnessed something of a renaissance. The growth of the international sector has been a powerful spur to both aesthetic and organizational development in Britain. Children’s theatre festivals are now a regular annual event in many cities in North America, Europeand other international centres. The New Victory Theater, located in the heart of New York’s 42nd Street, specializes in programming theatre for children and young people. Artistically, the 1990s witnessed a remarkable new aesthetic in design, writing and direction emerging from Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Canada. The Scottish International Children’s Festival, which takes place every spring, is a major focus for this new movement. Founded in 1990, it was renamed Inaugurate in 2000 and has moved from purpose-built tents in Edinburgh’s Inverleith Park to the theatres of the city centre.

from Nick Barter, Tony Graham, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).