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Tooley Street’s Unicorn theatre for children opens its doors

The new Unicorn Theatre was opened on Thursday by Lord Attenborough in a ceremony involving local school children, famous British actors and a huge, rearing, animated model of a unicorn.

Lord Attenborough holds the ceremonial key aloft, while town crier Peter Moore rings his bell

The striking copper-clad Unicorn Theatre on Tooley Street is the UK's first purpose built professional theatre for children. Unicorn will play to over 100,000 children each year and forms a new national centre of excellence for theatre for children.

Lord Attenborough turns the key

Lord Attenborough – preceded by Southwark town crier Peter Moore – led a procession of over 30 school children to the main entrance of the theatre, unlocking the doors and letting in a waiting audience including Philip Pullman, Roger Lloyd Pack, Rupert Penry-Jones, Claire Skinner, Dervla Kirwan, Guy Chambers, Patricia Routledge, Joanna David and Geoffrey Palmer.

Geoffrey Palmer

Inside the theatre, an enormous model of a unicorn came to life, rearing as if to take flight as guests, including 90 children from local schools, streamed into the building.

After an introductory speech from Unicorn patron Lord Attenborough, pupils from Southwark's Cathedral School sang the Unicorn Song.

Guests were treated to a special one off celebratory show to mark Unicorn's opening. The show took place in Unicorn's 340 seat main auditorium, the Weston Theatre. Hosted by Michael Rosen, the show included performances from John Hegley and Adrian Mitchell with speeches from Nicky Gavron, Deputy Mayor of London and Guy Weston of the Garfield Weston Foundation.

Roger Lloyd Pack

The Unicorn Theatre, designed by Keith Williams, aims to be a grown up building for children. The foyer has a huge transparent front along both Tooley Street and Unicorn Passage – the pedestrianised route to the River Thames. The foyer contains the ‘Grand Stair', which leads to the ‘Theatre in the Sky' – The Weston Theatre and the heart of the building. The Weston Theatre balances above the foyer and has been wrapped externally in special copper panels to reinforce its importance architecturally. The building is rich in child scale detail: the stages, balconies, seating and in particular the form of the main auditorium, derived from narrative story telling, all bring an appropriate scale to the theatre.

Patricia Routledge

The new Unicorn Theatre is a long way from the company's humble beginnings 58 years ago. Caryl Jenner founded the Unicorn in 1947, travelling the country, putting on theatre for children from two army trucks. Caryl Jenner died in 1973, 12 years after announcing her plans to create a theatre for children.

Wendy Craig

"Our future rests with young people," said Lord Attenborough. "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."

A class of 30 eight year-old children from Tower Bridge Primary School acted as ‘Unicorn Young Consultants' and worked with Unicorn's Education Team and the theatre's designers for three years during Unicorn's construction. The children assisted with the theatre's design, helped to select the public artists and explored issues around what theatre means to children. The consultation report on the children's involvement, ‘The Floors Should Be Made of Chocolate' was hailed by Beverley Hughes, Minister of State for Children, Young People and Family, as a model example of how children can be effective consultants and active citizens.

Sheila Hancock

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone added: “I have seen the new Unicorn Theatre take shape from the windows of City Hall over the past months. It is an important part of the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in this area of London and will strengthen the wonderful cultural corridor that has developed along the south bank of the river.”

• Visit the Unicorn Theatre website for details of current productions and performance times.

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