Children’s theatre in London has never been so popular.
The continued success of big West End shows like The Lion King, The Gruffalo and The Snowman prove demand is high.
But the Capital is unique in also having a number of smaller theatres and companies devoted to performances for the young, with new productions always on offer.
Polka Theatre in Wimbledon was the first dedicated children’s theatre to open in the UK.
It took on the former Holy Trinity Halls on the Broadway in 1979, converting them into a main auditorium seating up to 300 and smaller studio space – the Adventure Theatre – for up to 70.
Under the artistic direction of Jonathan Lloyd, the theatre has broadened its appeal catering for an ever younger audience with shows for everyone from 0-13.
He said: “There has been a baby boom and in most of our early years work we can’t meet the demand. The shows sell out.
“I have tried to build up the kind of work that we do for the early years.
“We want it to be a space where children really feel at home.
“And we are always trying to do more things to make the whole experience of coming to the theatre fun.”
With this in mind, Polka has a child-friendly café, garden and play area, a dressing box in the foyer and plays with which children can connect.
This month sees the launch of Lost and Found, based on the Oliver Jeffers best-selling book about friendship, in the smaller Adventure Theatre.
Although geared to the three to five age group, a special shorter version has also been produced for one to two-year-olds which is just 30 minutes long.
Next summer, Polka has a brand new musical show at the theatre based on “All Join In” by former Children’s Laureate Quentin Blake.
It promises to be an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza for to four to seven-year-olds.
And over Christmas the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen will be brought to life at Polka.
With demand on the up, Polka has ambitious plans for a multi-million pound expansion and refurbishment.
Jonathan said: “We want to improve the theatre spaces, we want to offer more scope to do more shows.”
Plans are still in the early stages of development and an appeal to raise an estimated £5 million won’t go ahead for another year.
Arts funding has taken a hit like the rest of the economy.
But despite the economic hard times, Jonathan Lloyd believes theatre still has an important role to play in children’s lives not to be overlooked.
He said: “Theatre is about sparking the imagination, asking questions about ourselves and the world around us and it’s about enjoyment.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Rachel Lyons from the Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in east London.
She said: “Theatre has got wonderful learning and development outcomes as well as being very entertaining.
“That’s one of the reasons children’s theatre is booming.”
Virtually all the shows at the small children’s theatre in, White Horse Road, Tower Hamlets are for under-fives.
All performances are on Saturdays with up to four shows a day on offer.
During the week the theatre, housed in a listed building, hosts a Family Learning project offering under-fives a chance to play and learn through drama and creativity.
The Colour House Theatre at Merton Abbey Mills, south London has a similar scheme with Under-Fives Jive, held on a weekday morning, with story-telling, dancing and drama.
The theatre was founded by Peter Wallder 15 years ago.
His son Tom, a junior partner at the children’s theatre, said: “Although, our shows are for ages three and up they are suitable for all the family and we do allow younger children to come along.”
And after a summer break for the theatre and its company, the audiences are flooding back.
Tom said: “We have had really good numbers so far. People are definitely still coming to the theatre.”
This month the Colour House is staging a version of Little Red Riding Hood every Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
And starting in November, there will be a Christmas production of Cinderella.
For those who love a puppet show, the Capital is home to two dedicated venues for youngsters.
The Little Angel Theatre in Islington is widely-known as the “home of British puppetry” and its productions tour theatres across the country.
Founded in 1961, the theatre company has gone on to become internationally respected for the diversity of its shows from Sleeping Beauty to puppet operas.
Despite the financial squeeze, General Manager Lynette Shanbury said: “We are finding people are still coming to the theatre as long as its good value for money.”
Roald Dahl fans aged four years and over can see Fantastic Mr Fox brought to life in puppet form until November 7th at the Dagmar Passage venue.
And for those under-five, Hold on Mr Rabbit! inspired by Alice in Wonderland will be on in Islington over the festive season.
Or to be truly transported into the world of puppetry you can climb aboard The Puppet Barge moored in Little Venice, Central London.
The barge has been ferrying its young audiences into the magical world of theatre since 1982.
This half-term, The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse will be delighting youngsters from three to eight years.
And for the older, more discerning child aged 10 plus, a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest will be performed throughout November in its 55-seater theatre.
But if it’s state-of-the-art you are looking for then the Unicorn Theatre on the South Bank is the answer.
The Tooley Street theatre opened in 2005 but the company has been touring in various guises since 1947.
Catering for everyone from toddlers to teens, it has seen more than 200,000 people pass through its doors for performances, workshops and events in the past five years.
Like the Polka Theatre, it has a main auditorium seating up to 300 and a smaller studio space for up to 100.
And even if you don’t want to see a show, parents and their youngsters are always welcome.
Elliott Rose, from the Unicorn Theatre said: “We have a café and a foyer area.
“The whole building is available for people to come in and spend some time here.
“We have quite a few groups of mums who here once a week for a coffee.
“It’s a modern and friendly space.”
Sunflowers and Sheds, set on an allotment, comes to the theatre next month for four years plus and through December until January 2 the three to five age group will be able to enjoy an underground musical adventure with Mole in the Hole.
With so much on offer in London, there’s never been a better time to let your child explore the world of theatre.
For more information visit www.polkatheatre.com