Tony Graham's magical formula keeps children spellbound

PUBLISHED: 10:36 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 07 September 2010

As artistic director of Britain s flagship theatre for children, Tony Graham knows the magic formula for keeping youngsters spellbound. He talks to Katie Masters. Getting a north Londoner to go south is usually a bit like trying to winkle a recalcitra

As artistic director of Britain's flagship theatre for children, Tony Graham knows the magic formula for keeping youngsters spellbound. He talks to Katie Masters.

Getting a north Londoner to go south is usually a bit like trying to winkle a recalcitrant crab out of its shell. But Highbury's Tony Graham appears to have found the magic formula.

He's the artistic director of the Unicorn, billed as Britain's flagship theatre for children and based in London Bridge.

"We get some of our biggest audiences from NW3," he says. It helps that it's so easy to get here on the tube."

It also helps that the Unicorn has got such a swanky new venue.

The company has been around for decades - starting its life as a mobile touring theatre back in the 1940s.

Then, in 1961, founder Caryl Jenner set out her goal for the Unicorn, saying she wanted it to be a National Theatre for Children.

But without a permanent home, that seemed unlikely.

Or it did until concerted fundraising in the 1990s and early years of this decade turned the goal into a reality - with a £14.3million venue built just behind city hall.

"It's a beautiful, state-of-the-art building," says Graham.

"We've got two theatres, an education/participatory studio and our own rehearsal space.

"The ambition is to make the Unicorn a focal point for children's theatre in Britain and internationally."

They're certainly putting their money behind supporting new writing for children.

Of the 17 productions staged so far, 12 have been new commissions.

"And the sales for our Christmas show are the best we've ever had - indicative of the fact that our reputation is growing," says Graham.

The Christmas show is a London-based twist on Sleeping Beauty, which runs until January 24.

"It's a time-travelling Sleeping Beauty," explains Graham.

"She's the daughter of an heir to the Russian throne, who comes to London and goes in search of her prince through the ages.

"As well as the usual story, you get to see how London has changed through the last 100 years."

"We always try to put on challenging, intelligent theatre that doesn't talk down to kids.

"All of the plays contain characters that children identify directly with. They have to have a conversation with children but at the same time take them to places they haven't thought about."

Fulfilling that brief early in 2009 will be a production of Lord Of The Flies - a revival of a successful piece that's already been on tour elsewhere in Britain.

A company called Hoipolloi are bringing in a physical theatre show called My Uncle Arly, based on the work of Edward Lear, and Graham is directing a play aimed at five to eight-year-olds, called The Cat Who Ran.

"It's a Japanese story about a kitten who is rather hopeless," says Graham.

"He can't jump, can't hide, can't pounce - certainly not as well as his brothers and sisters.

"I suppose he feels rather like I did as a kid, really not very good at anything. Poor old mother just doesn't know what to do with him.

"Eventually he meets a goldfish and surprisingly they make a strange alliance - they become best friends and start playing together.

"The story is described by the Japanese author as a poem/play - it's minimal, it's poetic, it's beautiful, it's enigmatic. It's a story that does a lot with a little."

The Cat Who Ran runs from February 12 until March 8.


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